By Hamish Ballantyne and Molly Beatrice
We sat on the picnic tables at Columbia and Hastings with about fifteen people, enjoying the sun on a March afternoon. This was a typical Monday Block Meeting in the Downtown Eastside. After saying hello to everyone, Dave served coffee to passersby, inviting them to the meeting. Scotty crossed the street with a stack of pizzas and started passing out slices. Aero set-up chairs and added newcomers to the list. As people gathered, they hugged and bumped fists, then settled in for the meeting. That’s how meetings normally start.
In contrast, at the block meeting this past Monday, tensions were high. We had received a leak about the City of Vancouver’s plan to evict the entire encampment in a police-led action. We spent the meeting talking about what to expect, how to avoid getting hurt by police, and where people would go after the eviction. Nobody knew.
The weekly Block Meeting sees up to fifty residents of the neighbourhood, living in the Hastings Encampment or nearby SROs gathering to discuss all manner of subjects. Consensus at these meetings repeatedly affirmed the importance of the encampment—that unhoused people are safer when they live side-by-side with other unhoused people.
When people live together as a community, there is less risk of injury by fire, because their neighbours are on hand with an extinguisher if one should start. There is less risk of their possessions being thrown away by city workers, because their friends keep an eye on their homes when they are away. There is less risk of death by overdose, because they are surrounded by caring people who know how to administer naloxone. It is when homelessness is made invisible, when people are forced to set up their tents in secluded parks or to sleep in alleys, that unhoused people are most vulnerable.
In the past, encampments in Vancouver have been organized in parks or vacant lots. The Hastings encampment allowed people to live in the centre of the only neighbourhood in Vancouver where unhoused people don’t face intense stigma and prejudice; close to the greatest concentration of services for unhoused people; close to friends, family and social services.
Many encampment residents had been living unhoused in and around the Hastings strip for years, constantly forced to pack up their stuff and move on, always returning because the Downtown Eastside is the only community where they felt safe. They often spoke of their pride at being part of a real community, where neighbours actually look out for each other.
It’s this community that’s under attack by the City of Vancouver.
During previous decampments, the City always claimed that they had offered everyone housing. This time, no such claim was made, but residents were told they could access shelter beds. However, on Wednesday morning, the shelter list showed that there was only one shelter bed available for that night.
On April 5, the City of Vancouver’s plan rolled into action: all city buses were rerouted away from Hastings, hundreds of non-profit workers were warned to stay away from the planned exclusion zone, and traffic cameras mysteriously went offline. Shortly after 9 am, dozens of VPD officers blocked off the street, creating an exclusion zone along the main strip of East Hastings. They refused access to residents, service providers, media, legal observers, and lawyers. City Sanitation workers made their way down the block, throwing away peoples’ tents and belongings while the police violently marshalled anyone who stood in their way.
These displays of force have come to feel routine in the Downtown Eastside. According to the city’s own data, Indigenous people are disproportionately likely to experience homelessness, and forcibly clearing people from their homes feels a lot like modern-day colonialism. Residents are enraged by this most recent instance of state-enforced violence in their neighbourhood.
The rage extends far beyond the people displaced from tents: on Wednesday, residents of SROs and supportive housing came out en-masse to voice their dissent at VPD officers and City of Vancouver workers invading their community and evicting their neighbours. Service providers and non-profit employees working in the neighbourhood joined the ranks of dissenting residents, leading to an hours-long stand-off between the community and police. To the people in the thick of it, the dynamics between the state actors and the Downtown Eastside felt clear: an occupying force suppressing dissent in its poorest neighbourhood.
Looking at the plans of Premier Eby and Mayor Sim, there is no sign of things improving. Indeed, the sweep resumed on Thursday morning, despite the community’s condemnation of Wednesday’s actions. A promise to build 89 new units of housing and renovate 231 SRO and supportive housing units by the end of June is not sufficient for people being displaced now; and there may even be a net loss of units, with the demolition of several hundred units of modular housing slated for the next year.
As it stands, there is nowhere for unhoused people to go. There are not enough shelter beds and the new housing supply won’t begin to address the problem. There isn’t even a park or street where someone could set up a tent and expect to go more than a day without being harassed. More encampments will inevitably appear, and the City will continue to find justifications to evict them.
In this regard, too much is made of Ken Sim’s inhumanity compared to his recent predecessors. Wednesday’s decampment is consistent with the way Vancouver has always viewed tent cities. This is a city that lives on real-estate capital and the tourism industry. As such (the logic goes) tent encampments cannot be allowed to exist where members of the public might see them.
Recently, court decisions around the country have begun to set precedents that tent cities be allowed to stand, so long as there are no viable housing alternatives: after years of harassment, residents of CRAB Park were allowed to shelter in place when a Supreme Court Judge rejected an injunction filed by the Parks Board in January 2022. In January 2023, the Superior Court of Ontario found that evicting encampments when there are not sufficient shelter beds violates people’s Charter rights. In February, a BC Supreme Court Justice struck down an application from the City of Prince George to clear the Moccasin Flats Encampment.
Vancouver’s Streets and Traffic Bylaw 2849 prohibiting tenting on sidewalks will not withstand constitutional scrutiny. When a successful challenge is won, people with nowhere to go will no longer be legally punished for trying to survive.
With each violent repression of its most vulnerable communities, the cracks in the veneer of Vancouver’s image as a decent, liveable city are expanding. But these very cracks generate new forms of solidarity, of community, and of kinship. The Downtown Eastside has always been the heart of Vancouver, and its residents will continue to lead the fight for dignified housing for all.
Hamish Ballantyne is a community organizer at VANDU. Molly Beatrice is a freelance stage director and organizer with Stop the Sweeps.