“No one had anywhere to go”: After the Hastings decampments

In the weeks since the evictions began, community care has proliferated

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      As grey clouds blanketed the sky on April 5, city workers and police methodically swept down Hastings Street, confiscating tents, survival gear, and personal belongings.

      The street sweeps, ostensibly prompted by a July 2022 statement from Vancouver fire Chief Karen Fry that encampments posed a fire risk, led to unhoused residents being evicted from their homes. At the time, Mayor Ken Sim told Global News, “We’re not trying to solve homelessness here… Every person that has asked for housing since we remove[d] the encampments has received it.”

      But that is not true, according to sources who spoke to the Straight. Dozens of people were evicted with no shelter spaces, no temporary housing, and nowhere to go.

      A day later, the rain began—triggering a weather warning from the City of Vancouver, and soaking Downtown Eastside residents and people who had come out to provide support or bear witness.

      “No one had anywhere to go. Everyone I was talking to felt like they were going to die,” recalled Naneek Lerat, a Nehiyaw (Cree) activist from Cowessess First Nation.

      Activists and organizers banded together to set up a warming tent in Oppenheimer Park.

      “It started off with one little canopy, and it’s pouring rain in all directions. No table, just like a pile of tents,” Lerat continued. “And then, all of a sudden, so much community showed up, looking for a place to support [people].”

      Kaylayla Raine, an artist and activist with English, Scottish and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) ancestry, added that a lot of the people involved in the warming centre had been providing “post-state-violence aftercare” during the decampments.

      “The folks that were doing that, along with a whole bunch of new community members, all kind of formed into the warming centre, which was able to last 48 hours,” they said.

      The warming centre was open around the clock and became more organized, distributing food and survival gear and providing a respite from the cold with a propane-operated heater. After around 24 hours, park rangers came and forced activists to stop the heating, citing fire risks. Lerat and Raine said they had fire marshal plans in place in case of an emergency, but complied with the order.

      “It was multiple people just in the community, doing this community care and showing up,” Lerat added.

      In the face of inadequate institutional services, mutual aid is increasingly filling the gaps to support people in need. The concept of mutual aid—people banding together to provide money, time, and resources to their fellow community members—rejects the idea that help should be locked behind barriers, waiting lists, sobriety, or expectations that don’t align with lived experience.

      “There’s nothing I can offer the folks on the block on my own, without being informed by them, that’s going to work,” Raine said.

      Ken Simmons, another supporter involved in helping set up the warming centre, said that there were plenty of other people in Oppenheimer Park and around the neighbourhood doing their own organizing.

      “There were lots of other folks that were independently taking distribution of food and supplies,” they said. “What we were able to create with this temporary space had a bit of a ripple effect where people were like, ‘Oh, we can do this.’ You don’t need the city or the powers that be, or a non-profit or a charity: we all have, autonomously, the capacity and the ability to do this work for people.”

      The Oppenheimer warming centre was a physical embodiment of how community members came together to help residents in the immediate aftermath of the decampment. But weeks later, the need for support hasn’t gone away.

      “There’s a sense of morality built into charity, whereas mutual aid tries to eliminate and minimize that idea,” said Kiki Yamada, a volunteer with Distro Disco, a mutual aid organization focused on providing survival gear. Mutual aid “comes from the perspective that everybody needs to care for each other, because these systems, our city, our government, won’t.”

      Yamada said that Distro Disco’s Instagram account got about 400 messages in the wake of the first street sweeps. “The response has been overwhelming,” she said. The organization’s financial transparency document shows 491 donations marked for emergency eviction support between April 5 and 22, raising over $36,000. Of those, 373 donations happened on April 5 and 6 alone.

      Survival mutual aid organization Distro Disco saw donations skyrocket in the immediate aftermath of the decampments.
      Kiki Yamada / Distro Disco

      “Whenever we organize these emergency responses, we see a huge outpouring of people,” Yamada said. “In the past couple of weeks, I think that what happens when the news coverage kind of dwindles, [so does] people’s investment. I don’t want to say that in a negative or accusatory way, it’s just like, when something’s not being shoved in your face all the time, it’s hard to pay attention to it.”

      Meg Taylor, a social navigator at Kilala Lelum, told the Straight that she’s seen a number of decampments in the Downtown Eastside, and the ramifications last long after the sweeps are over.

      That’s especially true of the current clearings, which she said have seen officials removing tents almost every day for three weeks. Taylor said one of her clients had all of their medication thrown away in the sweep, and many people have lost their homes, irreplaceable belongings, or sense of community.

      “It’s just been a lot of ripple effects that branch out from it, that’s not just about that initial displacement. It’s about trying to replace those things,” she said. “We just witness [people] on this treadmill of trauma.”

      Efforts to keep mutual aid and community care going after the initial emergency subsides are increasingly being organized through social media. Distro Disco and Lerat, whose Instagram account is @okimawiskwew, are part of a network of organizers that have co-ordinated both immediate and ongoing responses to the decampments.

      Lynn-Marie Angus, who runs Indigenous self-care business Sisters Sage, similarly uses her account to encourage her 35,000 followers to participate in mutual aid, by sharing how she distributes hot meals and survival gear.

      “The point for me is I have such a huge following that, for me, sharing about it is more of a catalyst and a kickstarter for other people to be like, ‘Oh, I can do that, too,’” said Angus, who has Nisga’a, Gitxaała, Cree, and Métis ancestry.

      But mutual aid can only do so much to help, when the systemic issues causing poverty and homelessness remain.

      High rents, soaring inflation, and a lack of affordable housing can force people onto the streets. Low income assistance rates, and a lack of safe, secure shelters and permanent affordable housing make it difficult for anyone who becomes homeless to find a permanent place to live. And the physical and mental trauma of homelessness, along with the disabilities that can come from never getting warm or dry, can feed into using unregulated toxic drugs to cope.

      “That impacts so many things, when you don’t have safe housing, when you don’t have anywhere safe you can store your medication, when you don’t have anywhere reliable to just exist,” Taylor said.

      According to the city’s own data, Indigenous people are disproportionately likely to be unhoused: in 2020, they represented about two per cent of residents, but 39 per cent of people experiencing homelessness. Lerat, who themself has experienced homelessness, said that “the messaging that Vancouver sends out is that there’s support here,” which is at odds with the reality.

      “It’s not just people from this territory, it’s people from all over Turtle Island,” Lerat said. “I have family members out here… People come out here, and they’re fucking left to rot.”

      Activists agree that continuing to provide community care, even once emergencies are over, helps to tackle the ongoing systemic issues that cause acute homelessness in the first place. But it’s also crucial to lobby politicians to do better. The recent decampment seemed to break the city’s own promises: CBC News reported that Sim’s former chief of staff had promised they “would not be sending in the police to decamp Hastings.”

      “We need to be putting pressure on governments, letting them know that what they’re doing is unjust, it’s inhumane, and we can give them ideas on how they can do better and support people experiencing poverty,” said Angus. “We don’t want people to be in tents either. We want people living in safe homes. But if all we can do in the meantime is provide a tent until it gets taken away again, that’s what we’re going to do.”