We Support the Block: OHCW Statement Against Street Sweeps and Decampment in the DTES

Editorial Introduction | On July 25, 2022, the Vancouver Fire Service issued an order to decamp the newly-formed tent city of people sheltering outside on Hastings Street. Every year the tent cities continue to grow as the housing crisis worsens. This year is especially acute with an alarming deterioration of the city’s SROs, epitomized in the fire that burnt down the Winters Hotel earlier this year. Out of necessity, unhoused people and low-income SRO tenants are now creating an alternative community of survival and mutual support on Hastings Street. Yet earlier this week the City and VPD began enforcing the Fire Order, with events on Tuesday (August 9) that can only be described as a police riot. The following statement was largely written before these events but directly addresses the ongoing decampment process on Hastings Street. 

On July 25, Fire Chief Karen Fry issued an order to destroy the encampment of people sheltering outside on Hastings Street. Our Homes Can’t Wait urges the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services (VFRS) to end the decampment order. Decampment without the provision of appropriate, safe, and dignified housing alternatives means banishment for those currently tenting. Our Homes Can’t Wait also affirms our solidarity and support of the Our Streets Statement on Hastings Street Tent City Fire Order. 

The decampment order uses “fire safety” as an alibi for the further theft of people’s personal belongings, and mass, brutal banishment. Banishment is defined as forced displacement without any place to go “besides jail or death.” The #StoptheSweeps coalition’s recent report outlines the impacts of Street Sweeps and indicates that when residents are “moved along” they do not simply disappear. People are left to fend for themselves in a wretched machinery that destroys their safety, dignity, and personal belongings. Every day they are told to move along, but with no place to go. The Sweeps are an integral part of managing the manufactured crisis of homelessness in the settlement of “Vancouver” and our coalition sees them as a practice of colonization which must end.

On July 1, 2022, the City and VPD made a commitment to discontinue its daily practice of street sweeps on the 0-200 Block of East Hastings. Since then, there have not been any fatal fires in the encampment on Hastings Street. On the other hand, there have been several fatal and non-fatal fires over the past few months in many SRO buildings. 

According to the Fire Commissioner’s own most recent Annual Report, residential structure fires (in houses or apartments) are the most deadly, especially in buildings without proper alarm systems and protocols. The Fire Commissioner’s report states that working smoke alarms could reduce the risk of fire deaths by 50 percent. If fire safety is the real issue, the Fire Department would hold SRO operators and managing entities accountable for their overwhelming fire bylaw violations, as these pose a much more serious and immediate threat to DTES residents. 

Based on this fire data, it is riskier to be forced into unliveable SROs that have unreliable fire alarm and sprinkler systems. The pandemic and its isolating effects, especially in SROs, has layered on more risk and death for drug users and low-income tenants. In the DTES, sheltering together on the street inherently reduces fire risk — with more people to detect early signs of a fire and more people to put it out, even before the fire department is notified. As of July 13th, 2022, fire extinguishers were also distributed to a handful of individuals sheltering on Hastings who now act as true first responders for their neighbors. With the proper tools and support, fire risk can be reasonably addressed despite what the City and the fire department claim. 

In addition, the Fire Order comes from the City with no plan for relocation. Politicians, such as Mayor Kennedy Stewart, claim to be “advocates” for the construction of “supportive housing” operated by non-profit organizations. It should firstly be emphasized that all levels of government — municipal, provincial, and federal — continue to pursue a path of budgetary austerity that leaves next to nothing for social and non-market housing, and we remain at historic-low levels of social housing construction of any kind (whether labelled “supportive housing” or any other name). On the issue of “supportive housing,” community members and members of our coalition consistently state that supportive housing and shelters alike are highly unsafe and hyper-surveilled forms of housing and shelter. Many people who are tenting have experience living in supportive housing, private SROs, or shelters and have concluded that  living outside is a better alternative than the unliveable and inhumane conditions they must endure within these carceral housing options.

The number of tents along Hastings is a clear indication that genuine housing options do not exist. This reflects the overwhelming and systemic shortage of low-income housing built up over decades of de-funding, and on the other side of the equation, the unsafe and heavily policed conditions within shelters, SROs, and existing supportive housing. OHCW terms this the “shelter industrial complex,” and there are a number of reasons why residents might choose to leave this system (if they have been able to access it in the first place): inadequate storage space within their units; a precarious sense of safety in their buildings; unjust treatment by staff and management; curfews and restrictive guest policies; buildings and shelters in a state of complete structural disrepair and underfunding; infestation by rats, bed bugs, and other pests; lacking fire safety; along with many other reasons. 

The current dismal amount of investment in supportive housing as it stands is investment in an increasingly carceral and disciplinary form of housing, one which compels residents to follow curfews, limitations or outright bans on guests, all while living in buildings in unacceptable physical condition. The City of Vancouver and fire department must recognize that forced decampment mean either deepened homelessness or, in some cases, an influx of residents into carceral ‘supportive’ housing and shelters. Moving people who are sheltering outside into unliveable, carceral housing is not sustainable, and does nothing to end this cycle of displacement.

We stand in solidarity with our neighbours sheltering outdoors because we know this system does not offer adequate housing. The City is using this opportunity to further expand its shelter and homeless industrial complex — the complex web of public and private partnerships that profit from and depend on the enforced poverty of Vancouver’s most precariously housed population. Money is moved between the pockets of government officials, developers, and non-profits executives to create inadequate and carceral housing, while their justifications for increased funding show no end in sight. Beginning with the deplorable housing conditions of SROs and shelters that cause folks to sleep outside as a last resort, and then the subsequent rehousing from homelessness outreach organizations that place people into the same inappropriate housing, the cycle is repeated endlessly. Ultimately, we need safe and secure universal housing, which respects human rights and provides appropriate amenities for all residents.  

In the meantime, Our Homes Can’t Wait calls for the City to work in good faith to support the Block Stewardship program, which is intended to build leadership amongst those tenting along East Hastings. More importantly, we demand that the City recognize the undue harm this fire order has brought on our unhoused neighbours. We reiterate the demands of the residents on the block:

  • The City of Vancouver and BC Housing must provide livable, dignified, and accessible housing to all.
  • The City of Vancouver must provide an adequate number of appropriate hygienic facilities such as bathrooms and showers to residents of the DTES, whether housed or unhoused.
  • Fire Chief Karen Fry must reverse the fire order.
  • The Fire Department must acknowledge the unique set of needs our community faces with the overlaps of a toxic drug supply, lack of adequate housing, daily police violence, and effects of generational trauma resulting from colonization.
  • The immediate end to enforcement of bylaws created to criminalize poverty.

Maintaining a “tent city” is a gross misreading of the aims and goals of the #StoptheSweeps coalition. The City of Vancouver cannot bear to confront their own deadly negligence and inhumane treatment of the city’s most marginalized. They would prefer that people disappear than actually take responsibility for the crisis that they helped create. We urge the Fire Department to reverse their decision to prevent the unnecessary banishment and further traumatization of unhoused residents in the DTES and ask the City to work collaboratively with Our Streets and unhoused residents in order to build a true alternative to this cycle of displacement.

All images by Ryan Sudds

Our Homes Can’t Wait is a coalition of Downtown Eastside organizations and allies that struggle for universal housing, free from unjust management and surveillance, on the stolen and unsurrendered territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) peoples.