William James left his tent with his bedroll, his clothes, and his foam mattress on Hastings Street Wednesday morning to visit a friend in Surrey, but when he returned in the afternoon it was all gone.
“I spent the day with him because he doesn’t drink and I’m trying to sober up,” James said. “Then I had to sleep outside the bank last night, all night.”
Vancouver’s Hastings Street was cleared Wednesday in a co-ordinated effort by city officials and police. It continued Thursday with a heavy police presence as crews worked to clear remaining tents and people’s belongings.
James’ tent and “comfy foamy” were tossed away with the rest of his belongings in the initial sweep, and he said he has no form of shelter to keep him out of the rain.
Back in the city’s Downtown Eastside on Thursday, James said he’s bounced around for the last year or so, sleeping in a tent at Crab Park before moving to Hastings where many people set up camp as shelter space is scant and often worse than sleeping outside.
Police threatened to arrest him when he got upset over his lost belongings, James said. Now he has just the clothes on his back and looming uncertainty about where he’ll stay in the short term.
“I have a right to be mad,” he said. “I’ll just keep sleeping outside. I don’t know what else to do.”
On Thursday, city garbage trucks and crews made their way down Hastings as police restricted access while the street and sidewalks were swept and hosed down.
Mayor Ken Sim said the order for the long-standing encampment to be removed came as the police and fire chiefs warned of escalating crime and an unacceptable fire risk.
At the camp’s peak, about 180 structures covered the sidewalk along the busy street.
Now questions loom about where displaced residents will go, and many have vowed to return to the only place they feel safe as soon as enforcement lifts.
“We’re worried that this action and the continued action will have cascading effects on the community,” said Vince Tao, an organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.
Tao said Thursday many people displaced by the street sweep have nowhere else to go and a only few people were offered shelter spaces.
“We’re trying to replace people’s tents and replace their belongings, but we’ve lost track of a bunch of people, and we’re very concerned and worried for them,” Tao said.
He said the city and police are aware of the inadequate housing and shelter situation in the neighbourhood, and he was “appalled” as he watched crews who “destroyed the homes of a bunch of unsheltered people.”
“There’s not enough shelter space, there’s definitely no permanent housing for people and yet they have to come down with an iron fist on the Downtown Eastside,” Tao said. “It’s a form of revenge and punishment, essentially.”
Vancouver city manager Paul Mochrie has said there are not enough shelter spaces to accommodate everyone. A statement issued Wednesday night from Sim’s office said eight people had asked for accommodation and it had been supplied.
The statement said “shelter space availability is fluid” but the city pledged to continue to work with government partners to “identify additional capacity.”
Under the cover of awnings and construction structures on the sidewalks not far from the former encampment, people huddled together out of the rain, smoking, drinking coffee, and talking in hushed tones.
Carley August, who has been unhoused for about a year, was sitting under an awning on the sidewalk under her blue umbrella with a small black suitcase, a pack of cigarettes, a hat, and a small container with a few of her belongings.
August said that’s all she has right now.
“It was intimidating today because of the way that the city had treated me,” August said, adding that she felt crews were “very belligerent” by taking away one of her wheeled storage bins amid the street sweeps on Thursday morning.
August said she stays in the neighbourhood because of easy access to the resources she needs.
Living on streets is tough, she said, and sometimes means staying awake all night, but living in a shelter or rooming house isn’t a solution.
“I like my privacy. Yeah, don’t get a lot of that,” August said. “It’s dirty there and there is a lot of fighting in there. Housing is really hard to get into sometimes.”
She said if city staff asked her to leave, she will just pack everything she owns in her suitcase and go, as she always does when city staff comes around.
“I had done nothing wrong, and I will just stay silent and quiet in the corner,” she said.