Downtown Eastside residents are demanding ‘dignified’ shelters amid tent takedowns during cold snap
Syndon Purser says surviving on the streets of downtown Vancouver’s Eastside has become “nothing short of a struggle” as law enforcement officers continue to forcibly confiscate residents’ homes and belongings from the sidewalks.
Purser, who has lived there for over a year, says she and other DTES residents are demanding proper, dignified housing and will not leave the area until proper housing solutions are in place.
She says it comes after City of Vancouver employees and police on Wednesday enforced a bylaw banning the accumulation of buildings and personal belongings on sidewalks.
“[City staff] started bringing the police back,” Purser said on CBC radio Thursday BC today, citing a mass evacuation of street shelters during a cold snap. “Some residents there no longer have tents.”
City of Vancouver workers began removing tents and other structures last summer, forcing dozens of people to relocate without alternative housing and shelter.
Homelessness advocates say the approach has torn the community apart and pushed people into isolation. They plead for more housing options.
Vince Tao of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) told CBC that Wednesday’s cold-weather law enforcement “street sweep” happened unannounced.
“People are outraged and discouraged,” he said. “Emergency shelters are full, supportive shelters are uninhabitable and BC Housing [wait]List is… years long.”
Police say they are stepping up enforcement due to recent gun crimes
Vancouver Police spokesman Sgt. Steve Addison said in a news conference on Thursday that city officials had asked police to be on standby “as usual” during tent dismantling and that due to a “significant increase in gun violence” more police officers were in patrol downtown Eastside.
Addison said faster responders are now being deployed along Hastings Street in Chinatown and Gastown after several shootings, including one early Thursday in which a man on a bicycle was shot in the leg.
Addison said police had seized 14 guns over the past few days, including “real, loaded guns,” replicas, and airsoft and BB guns. He said police had seized five real firearms from the area since the weekend — more guns than he’s ever found in so little time.
A statement from the city said: “Staff are still on the move [East] Clean Hastings daily and encourage people to “remove their structures” due to fire risks, access to buildings and road safety concerns.
It says its homeless services outreach team is still working to offer support for the homeless, along with emergency shelters or single rooms (SROs) as they become available.
“SROs are uninhabitable,” say proponents
But DTES residents say the housing they are being offered is part of the problem.
Syndon Purser said the SRO accommodation options being offered to residents are “in no way, shape or form worthy accommodation”.
“It’s a small room with no bathroom [and] no cooking facilities, not even in the building,” she said, adding that visitors must be screened and pre-approved for certain hours of the day. There have also been reports of broken elevators and limited access to hot water.
Anna Cooper, an attorney with the Pivot Legal Society, says the city’s removal of tents violates residents’ charters by endangering people’s health and safety. She says the current housing options for the homeless are dehumanizing.
“The Right to Decent Housing is not an SRO without basic services, it is not an emergency bed and a supportive housing structure where your basic rental rights are being violated,” she said, urging the city to stop evictions of tents.
BC Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon said in a statement that “too many SROs have not been properly maintained for many years and are therefore not adequate permanent housing. Conditions at many sites, particularly privately owned sites, create barriers to [people] stay housed.”
For now, Purser said her plan is to try and stay safe and warm.
“I just want a place that has a bathroom and a kitchen,” she said. “I think that’s what most people need in their homes.”