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'People don’t want to leave': Vancouver shuts down East Hastings encampment

The city is being assisted by Vancouver police to remove tents and structures in the area, about 80 in total.

A heavy police presence surrounds Vancouver's Downtown Eastside on Wednesday morning as the City of Vancouver shuts down the site to campers. 

Dozens of Vancouver police officers in cruisers, on motorcycles and bicycles, have blocked off numerous streets and intersections starting at around 8:50 a.m. 

On Monday, members of the Hastings street community and their supporters held a press conference to raise concerns after a City of Vancouver document discussing decampment plans was leaked.

The Vancouver Police Department says it has deployed officers to the area.

"We have deployed additional VPD officers to the Downtown Eastside this morning as the City of Vancouver continues to work within the Hastings Street encampment," says a spokesperson.

The city says it has requested support from police to bring the East Hastings encampment to a close "following a steady deterioration in public safety and an increase in fires in the area and the encampment zone."

"Today, city staff, with assistance from members of the VPD, will be working to remove all remaining entrenched tents and structures in the area, approximately 80 in total. The VPD will be present to ensure staff safety as they do their work and enforce the streets and traffic bylaw as necessary," the city said in a statement.

According to the city, at the encampment's height in the summer, there were 180 tents and similar structures. The city has removed 600 since August, staff say. They estimate 85 are still there; some shelters house multiple people.

The VPD says it will provide frequent updates on Twitter as the "work continues."

Glacier Media reporter Jeremy Hainsworth says roads are closed from Abbott to Main streets with traffic being diverted. 

"There are 13 police vehicles between Columbia Street and Main Street with dozens of officers," says Hainsworth.

The city says campers must remove their structures but that it will work with them will to find available housing or shelter. The Homelessness Services Outreach Team will remain connected with people from the encampment zone during this process. 

Insp. Dale Weidman told Glacier Media, while on scene, that the city is leading the decampment. 

"So what they're doing is they're taking down all the tents and the structures and the police are here to make sure everything goes safe and keep things secure," says Weidman. 

Mickee Sinclair, who lives in the Downtown Eastside, spoke with Hainsworth and said he is concerned with the decreasing numbers of single-room occupancy shelters in the downtown core.

Sinclair sat in the middle of the road between police vehicles.

Eric Olson, 46, watched as city workers dismantled a tent at 142 East Hastings on Wednesday morning. 

“They’re bullies,” he said, adding they knew the action was coming. “What a waste of cops. What did the homeless ever do to cops?”

A man sits on his skateboard as police surround Vancouver's Downtown Eastside on April 5, 2023. Jeremy Hainsworth

Concerns growing

Vince Tao of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) says people living in the DTES "will have no place to go, but they can't stay here."'

On Wednesday morning, the organization began sharing updates to its Twitter account, noting that the police created an "exclusion zone" that prevented the community and "legal observers" from entering it.

VANDU members are also sharing safety concerns about staying in various forms of housing, such as shelters and single-room occupancy (SRO) residences. 

Members of the community shared their concerns as well.

"I was grateful for sidewalks before this, and now I'm getting kicked off the sidewalk," said Cynthia Fordham.

The VPD says it has also "identified concerns about sexual violence in the area," with respondents to a recent Atira Women’s Society survey stating they felt unsafe and had "experienced violence, including sexual assault."

Police have also reported a "nine per cent increase in assaults in the DTES since last August when the encampment began, with the encampment zone accounting for 28 per cent of all assaults."

There has also been an increase in weapons from tents in the zone being used in the commission of crimes, according to the VPD.

Ryan Sudds, with Stop the Sweep Coalition, was on scene for the dismantlement and says a lot of people’s homes are being taken without a place for them to go.

“People don’t want to leave because they don’t have the housing that they want,” he says. “They don’t have another safe location to go to.”