An extreme fire risk and escalating crime have made a tent encampment in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside a deadly hazard and it must be closed, the city’s mayor, fire chief and police chief say.
City officials held a news conference Wednesday as Vancouver police officers and city staff were dispatched to dismantle the tent encampment along Hastings Street.
Mayor Ken Sim said the longer the street camp continues, the higher the odds more people will lose their lives and even more people will lose their homes to the fire hazard.
“Every day, we are hearing new and sometimes horrific stories: theft, vandalism, senseless acts of violence, violence against women, and more specifically, violence against Indigenous women.”
The city said in a statement that it has been working on the street daily to address fire, life and safety concerns identified in an order issued by fire Chief Karen Fry in July last year.
Fry said the situation has only become worse since then. They’ve seized 1,600 propane tanks and there have been 16 tent fires this year alone, she said.
“More tents go down and more tents go up. It’s not getting any better,” Fry said. “It’s a matter of time before more lives are lost.”
Fry said four people have died at the encampment.
Police Chief Adam Palmer said it is becoming increasingly challenging to keep people safe in the area.
“The Downtown Eastside encampment is fraught with serious crime, violence and dangerous weapons, which have proliferated in this neighbourhood. Street-level assaults within the encampment have increased 27 per cent and nearly half of those are being committed by strangers.”
He said 19 police officers have been assaulted, some very seriously.
At the heart of the encampment at the corner of Columbia and East Hastings streets, those living on the street swore at police and chanted “stop the sweeps.”
Some people were packing up, while others tossed their belongings onto the street.
Jason Rondeau lives at the encampment and said they have been “constantly battling with the city.”
“I have had to replace my stuff, all of my belongings, five times this year alone,” said Rondeau, pointing to a pile of luggage he packed as the police moved in.
Rondeau said when city staff come to his tent, he plans to say “yes sir, have a good day,” to ensure they have the least amount of friction possible.
But he said he’ll return “because as soon as the cops are leaving, I am coming back.”
The city said in a statement that it decided to act due to “the growing public safety risk” posed by the encampment.
It says more than 400 outdoor fires have occurred over the last eight months.
“The persistent fire risk posed by the encampment and recent fires in neighbouring buildings has made the situation on East Hastings even more precarious. Fires are occurring too regularly in the area and with escalating intensity due to an accumulation of materials and propane tanks,” the statement said.
Vancouver police also report an “alarming trend” of sexual violence in the area, the release says.
“As longer-term housing options come online, the city encourages those sheltering along East Hastings to accept shelter offers. While shelters are far from ideal, they provide a safer option than sheltering in an entrenched encampment.”
The release said there are about 80 tents and structures remaining at the site. At its peak, there were about 180 structures, although the city says 600 tents and makeshift buildings have been removed from the area.
Tent communities in Vancouver have been common.
In April two years ago, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth told campers at the city’s Oppenheimer Park that they could leave or choose to accept the housing they were offered. More than 200 campers had been living in the park for months, after they were kicked out of Crab Park.
Many of those campers then moved on to nearby Strathcona Park, which was also shut down months later after complaints of escalating crime.
Pivot Legal Society, which advocates for those on the Downtown Eastside, called the dismantling of the Hastings Street site a “gross human rights violation.”
“There is nowhere for people to go,” it says in a tweet. “(This is) a massive waste of public resources and a dangerous ploy to pretend to be doing something.”
The decision to remove the Hastings Street camp comes despite a B.C. Supreme Court order from Justice F. Matthew Kirchner, who said Vancouver’s park board wasn’t justified in issuing two eviction orders for those living in Crab Park.
Kirchner found the orders unreasonably assumed there were enough indoor shelter spaces to accommodate campers who had been forced out.
Similar court orders have since been made allowing camps to remain in Victoria and Prince George.
—Ashley Joannou and Nono Shen, The Canadian Press