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B.C. officials threaten to arrest homeless Vancouver campers at Highway 99 exchange

Homeless advocate Ryan Sudds of Stop the Sweeps says the provincial government has inadequate plans to house people who have been camping at the side of the Oak Street Bridge.

B.C. government officials are threatening to arrest homeless people who have set up a camp at the north end of the Oak Street Bridge in Vancouver.

But camp residents and advocates of the homeless community suggest officials have provided unreliable alternatives to the camp, which was the site of an accidental fire last Saturday.

Roy Runions said he has lived in his makeshift shelter under a grove of trees nearby the Oak Street Bridge on-ramp to Highway 99 since May; however, he and others have camped in the area for upwards of two years. The campers moved to provincial government land after City of Vancouver park rangers suggested they move last spring, said Runions.

The 43-year-old is living in a small mini cabin, or so-called tiny home, he built on his own, complete with a locked door that remains decorated with a Christmas wreath. Runions said about 10 people once lived here but the number is down to about four and it appears many have left behind a significant amount of possessions and waste, including two burned tents.

On Jan. 22, officials with the Ministry of Transportation posted a trespass notice on a temporary rental fence that lines half the area that’s highly visible to inbound commuters from the highway and nearby international airport.

The notice states if the campers do not leave and remove their property by Jan. 31 a peace officer may arrest them without warrant if the officer believes on “reasonable and probable” grounds the person is violating the Trespass Act.

Runions says he has only interacted with ministry staff to this point and it hasn’t been made clear where he can go; he said if there is no other option he will simply have to find another piece of public land to set up a shelter.

Runions explained that he had been previously housed via BC Housing but was “wrongfully evicted.”

Runions said he has found himself employed off and on since leaving Ontario as a teenager and coming to Vancouver permanently in 1998. He said he was born with a psychological disorder and a brain injury at age eight left him with memory problems and being “computer illiterate.”

Nevertheless Runions expressed a keen interest in politics, blaming the current Liberal government for a rise in homelessness across Canada.

“I find co-op housing a lot better than BC Housing. In a co-op you’re part of the community,” said Runions after being asked what an ideal solution would be for himself and his tented neighbours.

On Wednesday (Jan. 31), as Runions exited his shelter, officers in three Vancouver police cruisers appeared to monitor the site; however, no officials came to visit by around 10:30 a.m. and the officers left.

There to observe the potential decampment was Ryan Sudds of Stop the Sweeps. The group advocates for permanent housing for people living in the street, as opposed to merely displacing individuals to another site, typically a park or green space.

“We work to resist and challenge displacement,” said Sudds.

“What folks need is more time, at the least; so far people have been offered two days of temporary shelter to leave their home, which is not enough and not going to make people safer,” said Sudds.

“Our belief is to do what the residents want, which is they want to stay here or have a safe place to go to — and that’s not happening today. It’s a very aggressive tool for the Ministry of Transportation to be using, especially as the provincial government is saying that they care about unhoused people,” Sudds asserted.

Last November, the provincial government imposed rules on municipalities seeking court-ordered injunctions to remove encampments; cities must now ensure “reasonably available alternative shelter” is available for those displaced.

Minister of Housing Ravi Kahlon said the rules were informed by court decisions.

In recent years, several court decisions in B.C. have established that it is unconstitutional for governments to prevent homeless people from sheltering overnight in public places if there are inadequate spaces to house everyone in need of shelter.

“They shouldn’t be decamping people if there’s no adequate place to go …we would say this does violate people’s rights,” said Sudds, who was recently arrested for allegedly obstructing park officials from decamping Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside.

“It shows the provincial government is pro sweeps,” said Sudds, who was with Amal Ishaqi of the Marpole Mutual Aid Network.

The network, said Ishaqi, has been assisting an increasing number of homeless people in the neighbourhood.

“My message to the provincial government is that it’s completely inhumane. They pretend to be and put themselves out as a ‘progressive government’ but there’s nothing progressive about kicking people out of their homes (tents and shelters),” said Ishaqi.

Permanent and clean housing is important not just for an individual's health but also their ability to find employment. As Runions noted, "people can't go to an interview with their house in their hands."

A recent study from Simon Fraser University researchers asserts a patchwork of laws and regulations are stacked against homeless and precariously housed people, who face a systemic loss of their possessions.

Glacier Media reached out to Kahlon’s office on Wednesday in order to speak to him about his approach to encampments on provincial land and why the provincial government has not been building enough permanent shelters for vulnerable people. 

Kahlon declined to comment but the Ministry of Housing stated by email there are health, fire and safety concerns with the encampment.

"Outreach workers from the City of Vancouver, Social Development and Poverty Reduction and Vancouver Coastal Health have been engaging with people on this site for many weeks, and in some cases months, and ensuring they’re aware of support services and shelters available in the community. All individuals who engaged with outreach staff, have been offered a shelter space to move off site prior to the trespass deadline. Offers of assistance with accessing income supports and transportation to other locations are also being made," the ministry stated.

The number of people in Metro Vancouver identified as homeless during an official count in March totalled 4,821 — a 32 per cent increase over the last regional count in March 2020 when 3,634 were recorded without a home.

Kahlon’s November statement claimed since the BC NDP took power in 2017 “more than 4,800 people who were homeless, or at risk of being homeless, moved into new supportive housing units in more than 30 communities throughout the province.”

The ministry may be handling several encampments on highway lands as city officials may persuade people to move, advocates such as Sudds and Ishaqi suggested. The ministry is aware of upwards of 20 people living at the Bradner Rest Area in Abbotsford as of last fall.

This article will be updated if Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon responds.

gwood@glaciermedia.ca