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Vancouver fire chief orders removal of tents on East Hastings

Fire Chief Karen Fry: ‘Should a fire occur in the area in its current condition, it would be catastrophic’
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Garbage on the street and tents on East Hastings Street as seen on July 8, 2022 by a local resident who shared the images on Twitter.

The city’s fire chief issued an order Monday that calls for all tents and structures to be removed from sidewalks along East Hastings Street because of “numerous urgent safety concerns,” according to a news release from the City of Vancouver

Large sections of sidewalks in the Main and Hastings area have increasingly been populated by people in tents and other structures, with Fire Chief Karen Fry concerned about a fire breaking out along the strip.

There have been several fires reported in and around the strip over the past few months, including one earlier this month at the Vancouver Street Church in the 100-block of East Hastings Street.

“Should a fire occur in the area in its current condition, it would be catastrophic, putting lives at risk and jeopardizing hundreds of units of much-needed housing,” the city’s news release said. 

The increase in tents and structures began to occur July 1, which was the day Vancouver police told the city they would stop escorting city sanitation and engineering crews during cleanup shifts along the strip.

Deputy Chief Howard Chow told the Vancouver Police Board on July 21 that city staff and the public — via a council meeting — were informed eight months ago that police would stop escorting city crews, who requested officers be with them in what can be confrontational situations.

Chow said escorting city crews required two to four officers twice a day, seven days a week.

“So it's a huge drain on resources in terms of the requirement for that,” he said. “Nowhere else in North America do you see this sort of thing where we’re escorting engineering or sanitation and cleaning streets.”

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Deputy Chief Howard Chow at a July 21 Vancouver Police Board meeting. Screenshot

While Chow cited resources as a reason for pulling back on that work, he also said the decision was based on feedback from the provincial review of the Police Act, where other non-police options were recommended to respond to social issues involving drug addiction, poverty and mental illness.

“We're still working very closely with the city and helping to ensure that public safety issues are taken care of,” he said. “We’ve said it all along, that if there's a call for service, or a reason for police to be there, we will absolutely still be there [on East Hastings].”

'Rights and challenges'

The city’s release wasn’t clear at what level city crews continue to clean streets in the neighbourhood, saying “city crews remain committed to keeping streets in the [Downtown Eastside] clean and accessible for all in a manner that also respects the rights and challenges faced by those experiencing homelessness.”    

City staff said in a June 30th memo to council that they are working with community groups to explore alternatives to police support for sidewalk cleaning.

The memo comes after Coun. Jean Swanson introduced a motion June 21 titled “street care, not street sweeps: ending daily displacement in Vancouver.” A majority of council referred the motion to staff, who have yet to produce a report back to council.

In introducing her motion in June, Swanson said she has observed people losing their personal belongings to “sweeps” by city crews.

“I've actually seen — before I was elected — city workers take people's tents and sleeping bags and clothes,” she said. “They're basically ordered to do it by their boss, which is the city which is us here on city council.”

Swanson said there was no storage facility where people can go to retrieve their belongings. Her motion requests a facility be set up in the Downtown Eastside. She also wants staff to expand permanent parklets, seating areas, washroom trailers and garbage disposal sites for people without homes.

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COPE Coun. Jean Swanson has been a longtime advocate for housing for homeless people. File photo Dan Toulgoet

'Whack-a-mole'

Covered cooking facilities and cultural programming sites also form part of her motion.

“One city worker told me that what they were doing was like playing whack-a-mole because the folks have to be somewhere and they have to keep moving,” she told council.

In an email Tuesday, Swanson said she was concerned the fire chief’s order will result in more people being displaced, noting there is no housing available for the city’s homeless population, which is heavily concentrated in the Downtown Eastside.

“The motion called for the city to find a place for the tenters to be,” she said. 

“That is the crucial thing we need if we don’t have housing. I can’t believe I’m arguing for this measly little thing when what we actually need is housing. ARGH!! It would be good if the fire folks could say to the tenters, ‘You can’t be here, but you can go to _______ [some specific place].’” 

'Thoughtful approach'

In the city news release ordering for removal of tents and structures, the city said it will continue to take “a thoughtful approach that considers the needs of those sheltering outdoors as we do this work.” 

“In the coming days, the city will work with the community, nonprofit organizations and partner government organizations to expedite structure removal and to offer additional support for those sheltering outdoors,” the release said.

“Supports will include day storage of personal belongings and increasing public washrooms, misting stations, handwashing stations and water fountains in the area.”  

The city pointed to the need for senior government investment support, which is a request and position taken by consecutive city administrations and police chiefs over the past two decades.

“The conditions in the [Downtown Eastside] are representative of a systemic failure to meet the needs of low-income, marginalized residents and communities, a crisis requiring urgent cooperation of all levels of government,” the release said.

“The city has and will continue to advocate to senior government partners who have the jurisdiction, funding and responsibility for meaningful, life-changing interventions that are needed to address the key drivers of homelessness, including faster delivery of housing and emergency shelter, income and mental health supports, and additional service supports for people sheltering outdoors.” 

Stress and difficulty

Mayor Kennedy Stewart issued a statement Monday, saying he supported the fire chief’s order, but said he also realized the stress and difficulty the order will cause for people living in the affected area.

He acknowledged that many single-room-occupancy hotels in the corridor have poor ventilation and are not equipped with air conditioning, which forces tenants outside.

Housing advocates have long said living conditions in many hotels are also a reason tenants choose to live on the street or in a park.

Stewart said his staff is in constant contact with senior governments regarding securing money for additional housing investments, “especially for those currently living along Hastings Street.”

At the same time, the mayor said the city — since he was elected in 2018 — has secured funds “to build the housing and services we need to reduce homelessness and support those suffering with mental health and addictions issues,” he said.

Added Stewart: “Thanks to our partnership with senior levels of government, we have opened 1,100 non-market housing units at shelter rates, secured funding for 1,100 modular homes and brought over 700 private single-room-occupancy hotel units into public ownership. This is, and continues to be, the best path forward for those in need and the larger community.”

mhowell@glaciermedia.ca

@Howellings