Stop the Sweeps documentary shows community resistance to decampments

Filmmaker Ryan Sudds discusses the ongoing "evictions to nowhere"

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      In April, the Hastings decampments saw police and city workers tearing down tents and throwing out unhoused people’s possessions, despite knowing that there was nowhere for them to go

      But as a new documentary from filmmaker Ryan Sudds shows, there’s been a lot more going on behind the scenes than the public may realize—both from the city and police in enacting the sweeps, and also from a community that is fighting back against constant displacement.

      “There were literally hundreds of people involved in the Hastings tent city, in the displacement of the Hastings tent city. It follows a lot of these folks,” Sudds told the Straight in a phone interview. “And then again, how many people on the city side, the police side, the fire department side, work to displace unhoused individuals?” 

      In short, he said, Stop the Sweeps: Part 1 is “like a who’s who of the Downtown Eastside.”

      Sudds, who first got involved with the Stop the Sweeps coalition during the Strathcona Park encampment in 2020, began filming for the documentary in September 2021. Snippets of the footage are often posted on social media, to share what was happening in real time; but the documentary presents a broader look, locating the sweeps and displacements into a larger context. 

      “It makes a much different story, it makes a much different impact, than those single little pieces we’ve released over the past two and a half years,” Sudds said. 

      While ABC is by no means the first municipal government to have authorized street sweeps, Sudds noted that things had been improving under the previous council. 

      Over the course of 2022, the sweeps ebbed—and Stop the Sweeps’ work coalesced into VANDU’s Our Streets, a block stewardship program that ran leadership, cleaning, and community-focused initiatives including a fire marshal program and an Indigenous healing circle. 

      Our Streets had its funding cut short last fall, after the city and VANDU disagreed about how much of the program’s remit was street cleaning versus community development. That acrimony spilled over into a council decision earlier this year to cut funding to VANDU’s art table, where Coun. Peter Meizner justified the decision to “send a message.”

      “The city has re-committed to street sweeps that existed at the beginning of this documentary,” Sudds summarized. “In the middle of the documentary, you see that things changed, but where we are now in the City of Vancouver under [Mayor] Ken Sim is a commitment to a very aggressive, police-accompanied, pitchfork-in-hand street sweeps, that displaces people without regard of whether they have a place to go.”

      ABC’s law-and-order election platform heralded the return of stronger police presence. Stop the Sweeps: Part 1 only documents what happened up to January 2023, before the April decampments, but the tension was rising—including a displacement in December that happened during a snowstorm. 

      A still from Stop the Sweeps: Part 1, showing police and City workers taking a break from decampments during freezing weather.
      Supplied by Ryan Sudds

      “In the lead-up to April 5, and you see this in the documentary, we saw these sweeps having more and more police, becoming more and more aggressive, becoming more and more threatening,” Sudds said. “It’s not like April 5 happened suddenly. It has been a slow build-up back to that point.”

      While tent city clearings often happen with at least the veneer of trying to find residents more permanent housing, Sudds said that’s rarely ever the case. Many people who were decamped from Hastings had survived previous tent cities being torn apart. 

      “We refer to them often as an ‘eviction to nowhere’ or a ‘banishment’. [Street sweeps] don’t really care whether people have a place to go, whether the shelter spaces they’re offering are suitable or not to that individual, it’s, ‘Pack down your belongings and get off Hastings Street,’” he said. 

      The documentary spends time examining the language of displacement, the excuses that are often used, the ways the community resists the harm, and what the sharpest edge of the city’s ongoing housing crisis looks like. 

      Stop the Sweeps: Part 2 is planned at some point in the future, covering more recent developments and the fallout from them. Sudds hopes there isn’t a Part 3

      “We will stop making documentaries when we stop the sweeps,” he said. 

      Stop the Sweeps: Part 1 will have a free showing at the Vancouver Japanese Language School on June 24 at 1:15 pm. More information is available here.