Vancouver has a new tent city. This time it’s in the street, not a park

Click to play video: 'New tent city appears along Hastings in Vancouver'
New tent city appears along Hastings in Vancouver
A new tent city has popped up along Hastings Street in Vancouver. Kamil Karamali reports on why it's not likely to be cleared away any time soon – Jul 7, 2022

The City of Vancouver appears to be home to a new tent city, but it’s not in a park this time.

Instead, the dozens of tents have sprung up along East Hastings Street between Main and Carrall streets.

While tents and makeshift vendors have long been a fixture of the street in the area, the presence of tents appears to have bloomed since the city scaled back its controversial “street sweeps”.

As of July 1, Vancouver police have ceased to accompany city workers who patrol the street daily, collecting refuse — and according to some residents, personal items — and throwing them in dump trucks.

“Right now (the tents are) on both sides of the sidewalks, but I don’t think it’s because the police have stopped their street sweeps,” Cheryle Gnargie O’Sullivan, who lives and works on the Downtown Eastside told Global News.

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Controversial Kitsilano housing project goes before Vancouver council

She said the area has seen a drastic increase in homelessness, and pointed to the choice low-income residents face between living on the street or in “disgusting,” poorly-ventilated single-room occupancy hotels — several of which have been the site of recent fires.

“We just need adequate housing. We don’t need to live in tents or SROs, we need our buildings to be maintained and kept up to standard whether it’s in the DTES or anywhere else.

“Just because we’re here doesn’t mean we’re any less important.”

In a statement, Vancouver police said it gave notice last fall that it would cease accompanying city sanitation workers, which it said was “inappropriate use of policing resources and is not a core policing service.”

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Police directed questions about the tents to BC Housing.

In a statement, BC Housing said it was not responsible for enforcing city bylaws on camping. The agency said it was, however, “actively reaching out to those camping on the street or in parks to offer indoor spaces.”

“Over the long term, BC Housing staff, the City of Vancouver, and our non-profit housing operators are working on building supportive homes for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness,” the statement said.

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“Since 2018, BC Housing has opened more than 1,400 supportive housing units in the City of Vancouver – that’s 1,400 people who are no longer sleeping outside and have homes with 24/7 supports and access to healthcare.”

A further 700 spaces are currently in development, it said.

Area boutique owner Troy Cruikshank said the growing number of tents in the area raises concerns about safety and fires.

“I worry about what else cannot be monitored inside those tents, because it’s an enclosed space,” he said.

“We already have an issue with fires going on in the city. It is definitely an added concern.”

Click to play video: 'Survivors escape a fast-moving fire in Gastown, with some residents still missing'
Survivors escape a fast-moving fire in Gastown, with some residents still missing

Cruikshank said the number of people sleeping on the streets has grown, as has crime in the area. He said he arrived at his store one evening recently to find multiple vehicles with smashed windows on the block.

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“All of those people who came to this area that night, no longer feel the same about coming here, and that’s a problem,” he said.

“I have clients who have been coming to me forever who are suddenly ordering online for delivery to their house … they don’t feel safe.”

But community advocates say the problem won’t be solved with more street sweeps or policing — and that for many, sheltering on Hastings Street is itself a matter of safety.

Vancouver’s 2020 homeless count, the last conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, documented 2,095 homeless people in the city, about a quarter of them unsheltered.

“People talk about how when they’re displaced on a regular basis and have their things taken how violent that feels and how debilitating, destabilizing, the mental trauma and psychological trauma they feel from being shuffled along every day,” DTES support worker and advocate Fiona York said.

“When people stay in one place, that’s a way of trying to find safety.”

Click to play video: 'Downtown Eastside church destroyed in Wednesday night fire'
Downtown Eastside church destroyed in Wednesday night fire

York said concerns about safety in the area could be addressed by adding resources, ranging from fire extinguishers to sanitation.

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Sarah Blyth, executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society and long-time advocate, said the situation on Hastings Street hasn’t actually changed. It’s only become more visible.

“The tents exist. They go up every night, they come down — It doesn’t mean they’re not there. I think in some ways its good to have tents up so people are aware we need to have more housing,” she said.

Blyth called the elimination of police-supported street sweeps a good thing, saying it reduces conflict and tension in the area.

But she said it needs to be replaced with something else, anchored in the community.

“The solution isn’t just to go away, it’s … to find a model of helping people which isn’t just taking people’s stuff and throwing it in a garbage can which is creating more hostility,” she said.

“We need to involve the community so they are helping each other and helping themselves. More dumpsters, getting people opportunities to collect their own garbage, getting people from the community to help each other get rid of the garbage, we need a bathroom immediately.”

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The City of Vancouver declined to provide someone for an on-camera interview, but in a statement, deputy general manager of engineering Taryn Scollard suggested work of that nature was underway.

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The city has deployed extra trash bins in the area, she said, and plans were in the works for engineering staff to work with community groups and the homeless to conduct sidewalk cleaning.

“This work will begin at some point next week, noting that we need to provide time to community groups to organize a block stewardship program to assist with this work, and to provide them with tools that they need to be successful,” the statement reads.

Scollard said the city was also meeting with a coalition of community groups to identify “short- and long-term solutions that support people experiencing homelessness and to keep them and their belongings safe, while maintaining street cleanliness and accessibility. ”

In the meantime, it appears the tents will remain a regular fixture of the area.

“People have nowhere to go and nowhere to turn,” O’Sullivan said.

“We don’t have a lot of options going on around here in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.”

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