John Henry: “I won’t go inside, I won’t do the shelters — they’re sick, they’re corrupt, they’re dirty.”
The push to end the East Hastings Street homeless encampment continues to be a work in progress for city crews and police as more people returned overnight Wednesday to pitch tents and structures along the sidewalks.
Dozens of police officers and teams of city workers in garbage and transport trucks descended on the area again Thursday, closing sections of the street for a second consecutive day in an effort to move people from the strip between Gore and Carrall streets.
Though the majority of tents and structures were dismantled by owners or destroyed during Wednesday’s enforcement action, city officials did not accomplish their stated goal to end the encampment Wednesday.
“Towards the end of [Wednesday], there were still some structures and tents that remained in place, and there were some additional structures and tents that naturally popped up overnight,” said Sgt. Steve Addison, a Vancouver Police Department media liaison officer.
“So we’re simply out continuing the work and continuing to assist the city as it completes the work that it started yesterday.”
‘I won’t go inside’
John Henry was among the people who returned to a spot on the sidewalk, pitching a tent outside a former bank building on East Hastings near Main. Henry lost a tent Wednesday to city crews but said he replaced it and will do the same again as the weekend approaches.
“I won’t go inside, I won’t do the shelters — they’re sick, they’re corrupt, they’re dirty,” said Henry, leaning on a city-supplied bin marked “personal storage.”
Henry said he’s been homeless for two years after losing the house he rented in Calgary. He described the action to clear the sidewalks as “a dance” between people on the street and city officials.
“If they want to solve this shit, they need something like a centralized housing committee where the landlords can’t say no to people who want to rent a place,” he said, before suggesting another solution. “How about all these offices and highrises that are vacant?”
‘I want to straighten out’
Further up the sidewalk, Melody Watts and her son Seth were packing up their belongings to move again. Glacier Media first met Watts and her son in August 2022, when they were living in a structure outside the Regent Hotel.
Watts said she found housing in November but candidly admitted her drug addiction has taken hold of her and Seth. Living in a tent on the street gives both of them access to the drugs they need, she said, noting her accommodation in Vancouver is a long way from the Downtown Eastside.
“When you’re dope sick — when you’re really sick — it’s super hard to get here,” said Watts, who wants help for her addiction. “We prefer to stay here because we are addicted to drugs, and it’s really overcome our lives. I want to straighten out. I didn’t before, but now I do.”
Ryan Sudds, an organizer with Stop the Sweeps Coalition, said people forced to move from the sidewalks Wednesday scattered overnight in an around the East Hastings Street neighbourhood and slept on the street.
Sudds said the action taken by the city to clear the encampment doesn’t help people when Vancouver continues to be in homeless and drug overdose crises. He shot back at city officials who described the move as “compassionate.”
“This wasn’t compassion,” he said, standing Thursday morning on East Hastings Street near Gore Street. “And when [Mayor] Ken Sim says that — that’s a lie.”
Added Sudds: “We’re all angry, I’m angry. I don’t want a tent city. I don’t want it. And I want the government to do something about it. I’m on the same side as folks in a certain way who don’t want tent cities. I want them over. The way to do that is for the government do the right thing [and build housing] and stop this violence. This stuff is so wrong, and I just want it to stop.”
‘Making a step in right direction’
Reporters heard from Sim, Police Chief Adam Palmer, Fire Chief Karen Fry and city manager Paul Mochrie Wednesday that the encampment had become increasingly unsafe because of violence and fires.
“The challenges that we see today did not emerge overnight, and they will not be solved overnight,” Sim said from city hall. “But with today’s announcement, I am confident that we are making a step in the right direction.”
This week’s action by the city stems from an order the fire chief issued in July 2022 to clear the sidewalks of tents and structures. City crews, along with firefighters and police, had been steadily enforcing the order, but Wednesday’s push was unprecedented.
For two days, convoys of garbage trucks, transport trucks and street cleaners have been rolling up and down East Hastings. Police are on foot, on bicycle and on rooftops to monitor the decampment, with the defiance of people on the street making it difficult to predict when or if the sidewalks will ever be clear.
An estimated 100 people were living on the street Wednesday, with city officials saying it couldn’t commit to finding 100 shelter spaces; only eight people accepted shelter Wednesday.
“We’re not solving homelessness here today,” Mochrie said. “That’s not what this is about. This is about dealing with a very serious public safety issue. And the structures and the manner in which people are sheltering outdoors right now on Hastings, that has to stop.”
Video produced by Alanna Kelly