It’s raining heavily and the uniforms of Vancouver city workers are easy to spot alongside a slow moving garbage truck. A Vancouver Police Department (VPD) car lurks close by. Their pitchforks and shovels clash on a rainy sidewalk, amidst tents and their inhabitants. Sentimental and survival items alike are scattered around the residents of East Hastings Street as they prepare for the daily disruption. No community other than the unhoused and precariously housed has to fight to protect their belongings from being labelled as trash and thrown out by state authorities. Over a sample of five days in 2021, $2510 worth of items were stolen from people lacking shelter on the 100 block of East Hastings in the Downtown Eastside (bordered by Carrall St., E. Cordova, Main St. & E. Pender) and it took $2,170 in labour costs for the city to do so. Sweeps are a problem plaguing encampments too, a problem ongoing since the 1930s. “It’s not cleaning when they come with pitchforks and cops. That is brute force,” said a C.R.A.B. Park tent city resident this past summer.
The violent disregard and disposal of the belongings of unhoused communities by authorities has been normalized across the land occupied by British Columbia: ongoing colonial violence operates through this state-mandated displacement. In this article, we draw on examples from unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Swx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlil̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) territories (“Vancouver”) and unceded Lheidli T’enneh territories (”Prince George”) to emphasize the urgent need to end the harassment of people sheltering in public spaces. We also analyze the rapidly evolving ways the state uses its various bureaucratic avenues to continue enacting violence against unhoused people while maintaining the appearance of a progressive veneer in the eyes of the housed public. We will conclude by emphasizing alternative measures demanded by impacted communities.
What are street sweeps?
The violent routine of city staff removing and destroying the belongings of people residing on sidewalks and other public spaces, also known as “street sweeps,” is done under the guise of “protecting public sanitation and safety.” This practice clearly divides unhoused people from the housed public. People who are housed are assisted by law enforcement and court systems to ensure the security of their property, while unhoused people risk losing their possessions to those same authorities. Belongings deemed “trash” include essential and sentimental items such as survival gear, mobility aids, medicines, ashes of loved ones, IDs, and cash.
Street sweeps are not just a problem unique to the Downtown Eastside (DTES). Historically, there has been a pattern of colonial governments seizing the belongings of outdoor communities. This includes the bulldozing of the Moccasin Flats by the city of Prince George, which involved the theft of valuables, merchandise to sell, bikes, cans to exchange and gear necessary for freezing temperatures when people had nowhere else to go. This sweep happened even though the tent city was protected by a court ruling mandating that no displacement occur until housing be made available.
When one doesn’t have walls to return to, belongings are lifelines. The theft of belongings is the further displacement of the already displaced. “It might have been just a tent for the city, but for me it was my entire home,” said a Moccasin Flats tent city resident.
Katt, the founder and Executive Director of United Northern Drug Users Undoing Stigma (UNDU), an Indigenous-led grassroots peer organization working to support unhoused people in Prince George, has repeatedly witnessed the inability of city authorities to meet the needs of unhoused citizens. UNDU seeks to address these issues intracommunally, providing opportunities for people with lived experience of houselessness to support community members struggling with meeting their basic needs through a harm reduction lens.
Katt explained,“It’s very one-sided on who gets to be protected and supported properly. In all reality, I’m sure if people who are struggling were well off and had the right people in their corner to help support them they wouldn’t need to be trying to survive every day on the streets. It’s hard trying to survive with nothing. It’s hard trying to hold yourself together.”
After the Spring 2021 eviction of Camp H.O.P.E.S. tent city in Strathcona Park, Vancouver, former residents who had not received housing before the eviction returned to collect their belongings during the allotted period of time the city offered them. They had been told their belongings would be left untouched until the end of the time window, but returned to find tents containing their belongings gone or in the process of being demolished under the direction of the Vancouver Park Board. No indication as to where belongings were to be found was given, although the multiple dump trucks on site indicated disposal in a landfill.
Before the City of Vancouver’s injunction request was denied in court, C.R.A.B. Park residents also experienced the theft of their possessions by park rangers, with specific escalations in July and September of 2021. On November 29th, 2022, in the middle of a snowstorm, multiple people had their belongings and tents seized on Hastings Street, despite having no housing offers. Another sweep occurred on January 19th, 2023, with at least ten residents evicted with the assistance of city workers and more than a dozen VPD officers. The violence continued to escalate with upwards of 100 cops descending upon Hastings Street on April 5th, 2023.
The daily seizure and destruction of belongings is part of the systematic decimation of encampments. This violence has happened in cities far and near, including Vancouver and Prince George, but also Toronto, Victoria, Nanaimo, Coquitlam, Maple Ridge, Los Angeles, Boston and many others. Cities aim to “invisiblize” unhoused people rather than create more livable housing.
As Katt from UNDU continued, “No one wants to lose their home, have it destroyed or taken away, and have things that are sentimental in value destroyed. So just because someone has a home that is different or people don’t understand shouldn’t mean they shouldn’t have it or it should be allowed to be destroyed or taken away.”
The theft of belongings by cities is detrimental to the livelihoods and stability of those impacted. Former C.R.A.B. Park resident Andrew H. described city workers taking bags of cans from him, which translates to a loss of countless hours of labour and his daily income. He said, “Sometimes they’ll [city workers and/or park rangers] drive up close by and park to watch you. They wait for you to leave and take all your things as soon as you do.” The constant, continual surveillance is exhausting and unavoidable if you live on a sidewalk or in a park. “This [the sweeps] happened to me every day for thirty days,” said J, another C.R.A.B. Park resident. He described it as a traumatic and violent process and “hard on the mental health.”
The shortfalls of city authorities
It is no coincidence that the amount of belongings people are forced to keep outside has expanded in the area of the DTES commonly known as “The Block”: a major free indoor storage space (operated by First United Church) lost funding in 2019. Free, low-barrier, accessible and substantial storage is urgently needed, especially as cities stall or refuse to build permanent housing. The recently-opened free Aboriginal Front Door storage space in the DTES is a small gain that wouldn’t have happened without the work of the “Our Streets” campaign.
Storage space cannot be a replacement for housing. People across the province need adequate and accessible housing at shelter and welfare rates, operating under the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA). A cycle of displacement, which forces more people to survive in public spaces, is propped up by unlivable Single Resident Occupancies (SROs) and highly restrictive, jail-like policies within modular and supportive housing which frequently result in evictions. Many of the people who got housing after the destruction of Camp H.O.P.E.S. ended up back on the streets for these reasons. Non-profit housing providers often have tenants sign “program agreements” which don’t follow the RTA, despite this being an illegal practice that robs tenants of their rights. For the people on blocks and parks across this province, affordable and attainable housing would solve many problems.
Housing is vital for many reasons, including the fact that the process to try and get belongings back is nearly impossible to navigate. Many people do not have the means or ability to retrieve their belongings once they have been seized by cities, if they are lucky enough to find where these items are located, or if they have not been thrown away entirely. Belongings are sometimes stored at undisclosed facilities far from the neighbourhoods they are taken from. Transporting belongings requires a vehicle, something inaccessible to most people sheltering outdoors. The process to collect belongings from the city is long — sometimes ranging from months to a year, and often a return never happens at all. Additionally, the process is mystifying; it is seemingly purposely complicated, time-consuming, and bureaucracy-laden.
Multiple emails sent by an advocate for months after the demolition of Camp H.O.P.E.S. did not alleviate confusion about the location of camp residents’ items and the retrieval process. Hours were spent on the phone with the Vancouver city service 311 to inquire where missing items were taken with little result. Objects had been misplaced, there was no proper system or protocol for returning them if they were being “stored,” and no way to speak with one consistent representative. Without stable phone and internet access, getting in contact with the city to begin the process is even further out of reach. Additionally, the few residents whose belongings were found in a city storage facility were told their items would not be returned to them directly, but must be picked up at a police station, a hostile place for those who consistently encounter police aggression on the streets and in parks.
Katt from UNDU said, “I think [cities] need to start taking some accountability of the harms they cause and have caused, own some humility, and make amends in order to move forward in a culturally safe and humble manner.”
What cities need to do
There are intermediate steps we need to fight for, with the long-term goal of ending the criminalization of poor people. This can only happen collectively, with those most impacted by housing precarity at the forefront. For example, former C.R.A.B. Park resident D points out the importance of “resources for hygiene.” Accessible washrooms and garbage facilities would also help people maintain their well-being.
In Prince George, advocates and residents developed a claims form and compensation process for Moccasin Flats tent city residents who had structures and living spaces containing valuables demolished by heavy machinery. Dozens of people were impacted, including one resident who almost killed herself after losing everything she had, as stated in an affidavit. The claims form, developed in response to the City of Prince George’s cruelty, demands financial compensation for those who have lost valuables and a clear process for how to go about applying for these funds.
The destruction of unhoused peoples’ means of survival and belongings is a province-wide issue, therefore solutions must be applied across all cities and towns. “We need something similar in Vancouver,” said advocate E who is based on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Swx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlil̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) territories and works in the DTES. “The claims process in Prince George at least sets out a clear process and mechanism for compensation. We congratulate the City of Prince George for their clear policies. Other cities need to follow suit and do something similar. If Prince George can do it, why can’t [Vancouver]?”
The policing and devaluing of the lives of those who use public space for shelter will continue unless, as former Strathcona Park resident B put it, we “change the system.” We need to ask critical questions: Why aren’t unhoused people allowed to keep belongings wherever they are sheltering? As B asks, “when they [the city/province] say they have adequate housing to offer, who is deciding this? Are they living in it?”
Katt continues, “Instead of putting all this money into enforcement and big fancy meetings, [cities] should be reaching out to peer-led organisations, cultural representation for our people, and [have] the people affected come up with real solutions for development and implementation, and then supporting the decisions financially and municipally. I think they forget that we are just as human as they are and deserve to be treated with respect and like how they would treat others that they view human. I’m sure if their mother or people they cared about were struggling, they would try to help them rather than shun them.”
Cities must all follow guidelines rooted in the same principles based on respect, autonomy and care, and shaped from the perspectives of those most targeted by street sweeps. Unhoused communities don’t need empty apologies, but action and concrete, timelined commitments.
As Katt stated, “Unless cities learn that they need to start including peers that already are doing the work and/or are willing to learn and willing to support their work, they’re going to continue making things worse rather than better.”
Colonialism and violence
In June 2022, Motion B3 was brought to Vancouver City Council and proposed community care as an alternative model to the brutal, police-assisted “street cleaning.” However, the motion was blocked from being put to a public hearing by the votes of eight council members. These government representatives prevented the numerous people who had signed up to speak up in support of the motion from doing so, a silencing technique indicative of how the state views poor people and their livelihoods. Despite a powerful protest by the community pushing back, the VPD have never stopped their heavy surveillance of the DTES, during and outside of sweeps. Police brutality continued to skyrocket with 31 people killed by police in BC in 2022.
There are many ways our colonial governments use bureaucratic systems to police and terrorize unhoused people, all while maintaining a political facade of progressive politics. The Vancouver Fire Department issued a fire order in July of 2022 that called for all belongings on sidewalks in the DTES to be removed within the week. While this order comes from a different department than the one behind the daily sweeps, the result is the same: the loss of belongings and living space for unhoused people and no real improvement to living conditions of individuals located on The Block.
In fact, there was an increase in dangerous conditions and violence from both the state and other Vancouver residents against unhoused residents of the DTES. Just weeks after the fire order was posted, anonymous flyers were put on tents on The Block that threatened to burn them down if they were on the street at the end of the week. The authors of the flyers were seemingly emboldened by the increased city pressure to remove the belongings of unhoused community members from the sidewalks. The fire department argued the order was intended to create safer conditions due to tent fires and other mishaps that can occur when individuals do not have access to adequate heating and storage, but these orders don’t protect citizens. Rather, they encourage violence from others. Heat sources are necessary for survival and must exist where people are living, wherever that might be. The safest fire prevention strategy is more housing and safer housing, and a fire order does absolutely nothing to work towards this.
Considering the high percentage of Indigenous people without stable housing, street sweeps are a prime example of the continuation of colonial “othering” and indicative that the Canadian state still perpetuates genocide. Katt explained, “colonialism started from control and the fear of the unknown or an unwillingness to want to understand because they [the colonisers] knew the ‘right way of doing things,’ by any means necessary. [The street sweep process] is no different. They tried stripping our identities of who we are and what we stood for – by force – in order to protect their “good” people. This is no different. They did not care about the damage, harms, trauma and deaths they were causing. This is no different.”
But there is resistance to sweeps all across Turtle Island: UNDU in Prince George, the Services not Sweeps campaign in L.A., #StoptheSweeps in Vancouver, and dozens of other residents and organizations are fighting back. Over the summer of 2022, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War (CPDDW), and Hastings Tent City residents ran a block stewardship program called “Our Streets”, a community-led alternative designed to empower tenants, ensuring safe and clean streets while respecting the lives and belongings of those living outdoors. It was a crushing loss when the city cut this program’s funding. UNDU’s list of demands for Prince George (see Appendix below) puts the gears in motion towards justice for residents and suggests an alternative model for addressing belongings in public spaces.
The colonial occupying force known as “Canada” was built upon the control and segregation of public space. Challenging the authority of the colonial state through a struggle over public space is an important part of the decolonizing process in Canada. As Katt put it, “We’ve seen and others are learning about the harms and deaths that governance has caused and there’s talk about truth and reconciliation, but I still don’t see any real action. If we want to start moving towards the right way of doing things we need to start working with our people who are affected by the harms. [Cities] need to understand that we are people who want to be heard, they need to stop trying to decide what they think is best for us. In all reality it’s what’s in their best interest for power, control, and greed, by any means necessary. Force, brutality, control, this doesn’t work for people.”
a. UNDU: Uniting Northern Drug Users Undoing Stigma: What are steps cities should be taking to make their apologies actually mean something:
- Replace the things that can be replaced & keep the process as simple and painless as possible. It can be re-traumatizing to tell the story of dispossession.
- Find ways to amend for the things that cannot be replaced.
- Some people should be FIRED for contravening the court and destroying Moccasin Flats.
- There should be an open and clear COMMITMENT TO IMPROVE THE PROCESS NEXT TIME!
- Ensure there is transparency and consent throughout the whole process.
- List the reasonable supports that will be offered BEFORE the transition to supportive housing occurs. Discuss this with residents individually and also publicly.
- If you intend to dispose of people’s belongings, explain the process that is about to happen in clear language at least 2 weeks in advance. This should be publicly explained and notices should be put up so that people who are not physically present can understand. Provide a contact number so that people can get further information.
- Offer reasonable support to transport goods to the new shelter or to storage facilities.
- Get SIGNED agreement to confirm that residents understand the process.
- Take a photo of the scope of items that will be disposed of so there is no disagreement later.
- Have residents sign that reasonable support was provided to transport goods and that disposal can proceed NOW.
- We should be “better friends” if it’s done right. If our relationship, between residents and the state is not better, something went wrong.
Other thoughts from UNDU:
- Supportive services should feel more like home than like jail
- I should have some privacy. They shouldn’t be able to open the door whenever they want.
- I want my voice to matter in making decisions about my home. We are not heard.
- There is a coercion continuum that needs to be discussed
- Unapologetically housing first
- Supportive day wage work program – rhino temp labour
- Could there be a “Tenant Association”
- What are the guidelines or minimum standards for supportive housing in PG?
- Policies should be harmonised across supportive housing and transparent. We should get to contribute to reasonable policies
- Procedures – if they aren’t followed there should be ways to report and improve
- There should be ways to continually improve policies and procedures
- There should be clear conflict resolution measures that are trauma informed
Best practices for moving people into housing
- Time frame
- Two week timeline
- Supports for putting stuff into bins
- Apology not good enough
- Storage not just 9-5 (including ashes, work tools and equipment)
- Should be allowed to bring in work equipment
Link to interviews and statements here