A union representing more than 50,000 BC health-sector workers says the City of Vancouver’s ongoing efforts to clear homeless encampments from the Downtown Eastside puts both the health of those people — and the health care system — at risk.
City crews supported by police began dismantling the encampment around East Hastings Street last week, more than half a year after the city’s fire chief issued an order to remove structures from the area citing life safety risks.
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Hospital Employees’ Union spokesperson Mike Old said the process has lacked dignity for the unhoused and been “a bit cruel.”
But he said the greater concern was the effect it would have on the area’s homeless — and the broader health care system.
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“From our perspective, this really puts the lives and health status of these individuals at some risk,” he said.
“There’s just no question that the result of decampment last week will be more people visiting emergency rooms, more people putting pressure on community health services, and as we know those services are already stretched to the max.”
Old said there’s no question the conditions in the encampment were “not ideal at all,” but that by breaking it up without offering housing the city was simply moving residents elsewhere, where they could be at greater risk of extreme weather, mental health issues or toxic drugs.
The Candian Union of Public Employees has also criticized the decampment, but says its workers can’t refuse the work under labor laws.
“The tasks demanded of these workers stand in contrast to our advocacy, which calls for a harm reduction and a trauma-informed approach when dealing with vulnerable populations,” it said in a statement.
Crews were back in the Hastings Street area Monday, and the city has said to expect repeated street sweeps supported by police aimed at keeping sidewalks clear.
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But some of the people who were sheltering there have defied the sweeps, returning repeatedly in the six days since the decampment began.
“Currently I am homeless because my place got taken. I just hope they have a place lined up for us people to go to, because you are kicking everybody out. Where do you expect everybody to go?” Downtown Eastside resident Clorissa Robillard told Global News.
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“I’m one of the few sticker-outers,” added Jason Rondeau.
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“It is what it is. They tell us to take it down, we take it down, we move on, and then we come back. It’s the only thing we can do, really. The shelters are worse than the streets are. They’re more violent, they’re dirtier, they’re just not very good at all.”
Kevin Barlow, executive director of the Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association, said the camp was not a safe or appropriate place for people to live.
He said a criminal element had established itself among the homeless living in the area, and was primarily responsible for an increase in crime and vandalism in the area — which was costing small businesses more than they could bear.
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But he said the city should not let it get as bad as it was, and that simply clearing the camp out wasn’t a solution.
“Our agency and the non-profits that serve this agency are all saying they just wish a different approach was taken, because it’s really, come in and strongarm people who are desperate, they have nowhere else to go, and then you’re telling them to pack up and move on,” he said.
“It’s a powerful statement when people say I would rather sleep on the streets than go into a shelter or an SRO. So in many ways I question why the city took so long to take control of the situation.”
Early numbers from the City of Vancouver show 18 of 56 people associated with structures removed during the first two days of the Hastings decampment accepted referrals to shelters.
Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim along with the city’s police and fire chiefs have said the encampment had to be dismantled because of a growing fire risk, along with an increase in crime in the area.
BC Premier David Eby maintains the encampment is not safe for anyone, and insists there is space for people to shelter indoors.
“The situation there is not sustainable, we’ve had fires, assaults,” BC Premier David Eby told Global News in an interview on Focus BC Friday.
The province projects it will have 110 additional units of permanent housing available for the unhoused over the next three months.
The Union Gospel Mission, which provides shelter and outreach to the homeless in the DTES, says it has seen an influx of people asking for basics like toiletries because their personal possessions have been dumped in the trash.
Vancouver city staff acknowledge campers are likely to find their way to other neighborhoods in the city.
— with files from Emily Lazatin and Grace Ke
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