Statement on Hastings Street Tent City Fire Order
Submission to The Social Lens: A Social Work Action Blog by Mennakshi Mannoe, Criminalization & Policing Campaigner, Pivot Legal Society. Originally published on the Pivot website, July 26, 2022.
On July 25, 2022, Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services (VFRS) Chief Karen Fry issued an order to immediately decamp the unhoused community on East Hastings. The encampment, concentrated between Carrall Street and Main Street, has been called the ‘Hastings Street Tent City.’
The #StopTheSweeps Coalition, an alliance of Downtown Eastside (DTES) organizations including the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War (CPDDW), Pivot Legal Society, and the Defund604 Network, condemns the cynical use of ‘fire safety’ to disperse unhoused people with nowhere to go, effectively banishing them from the neighbourhood. There is a cruel irony in Chief Fry’s decision to issue this order while an extreme heat warning is in effect, leaving unhoused residents to suffer under the sun or forcing them back into underventilated, highly-flammable single resident occupancy hotels (SROs).
Our Streets, a newly-formed block stewardship initiative in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of so-called Vancouver, is disappointed in the way this order was declared and executed. In the two weeks the Our Streets Block Stewardship Program has been piloted, our team has diligently worked with city staff and the VFRS to support unhoused residents in keeping safe while sheltering on the 000-300 blocks of East Hastings. Our Coalition has met with city staff in over 20 meetings in the last three weeks. We have complied with every task the city has brought forward related to the Hastings Tent City.
In the two weeks the Block Stewardship Program has been piloted, peers have supported residents on the 000-300 block of Hastings Street through the following activities:
- Provision of essential materials like cleaning and harm reduction supplies
- Dissemination of information impacting peoples’ day-to-day activities
- Removal of approximately 30-40 bags of garbage daily
- Removal and safe storage of over 17 propane tanks
- Provision of LED lights to reduce candle use
- Fire safe training and fire extinguishers given to eight Block Stewards
- Working with residents to create a safe path wide enough for wheelchairs and scooters to pass on the sidewalk
- Working with allied organizations in the DTES to coordinate necessary services for the community to thrive, including regular food distribution as well as weekly workshops for community members to learn about fire safety and overdose response.
The #StopTheSweeps Coalition has been meeting weekly in good faith with the City of Vancouver ‘Street Sweeps Working Group’ (SSWG) since April 21. In addition to demanding an end to the harmful practice of street sweeps and the launch of a community-led alternative, we have consistently communicated the need for safe and affordable housing, for public outdoor bathrooms and amenities, and for cooling and warming centers. In late June, the VPD announced they would be withdrawing from the street sweeps as of July 1, giving only two weeks’ notice. The City admitted it had no plan to respond to this change. When the City and VPD failed to step up to keep our neighborhood safe, Our Streets stepped up to rapidly develop and deploy the Block Stewardship Pilot Program.
At the last ‘SSWG’ meeting on Monday, July 25, 2022 between Coalition members, BC Housing and city staff (including representatives from Housing and Homelessness Services, Engineering Services, Social Planning and the VFD), we continued to work in good faith with these partners. Half an hour into our meeting, we were blindsided by the announcement of Chief Fry’s Order. We are shocked that the Fire Department has escalated to a fire order despite our progress and efforts to promote community fire safety on the block.
When Our Streets asked questions related to what kinds of housing options will be offered to tent city, residents we were met with no response. No plan has been formulated by the city other than decamping the tent city, leaving residents with no place to go and violating the city’s MOU on decampment (“Support for Unsheltered Residents – Memorandum of Understanding between City of Vancouver, Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, and Provincial Government”).
Our Streets has worked tirelessly to launch an innovative Block Stewardship program, believing the city was our partner in creating community-led solutions to support the health and safety of our neighborhood. It has become increasingly clear that the city, the province, and BC Housing are continuing the pattern of woeful negligence of our city’s most vulnerable. For years, the following urgent needs have not been addressed. In addition, city staff have consistently thwarted our ability to make progress, withholding crucial information on multiple occasions and interfering with our ability to meet our agreed-upon deliverables for this program.
- Amenities like bathrooms, water fountains and storage facilities have not been created to support high levels of homelessness
- No new welfare rate, affordable housing stock has been announced as the number of accessible and habitable single room occupancy (SRO) housing units located in the Downtown Eastside declines due to demolition, rent increases, conversion and fire.
- In five years, BC Housing has only made 1,400 supportive housing units available across the entire City of Vancouver. This housing stock fails to serve a quarter of the reported individuals living on the streets or in shelters in Vancouver, as most units have been consistently reported by residents to be unlivable due to overheating, overcrowding, lack of fire safety, lack of tenancy rights, pest infestations and deadly mold.
- No emergency heat-related shelters have been created (despite record numbers of heat-related deaths happening last summer)
- Police have interfered with the Block Stewardship Program’s efforts to paint sidewalks to create accessible pathways. VPD have also continued to follow City Sanitation workers as they pick up garbage, making residents feel threatened and unsafe.
- Fire safety in SRO’s continues to be tenuous at best.
- The Winters Hotel Fire Report confirmed extinguishers were empty as firefighters did not order fire extinguishers be serviced or replaced prior to the building burning down. Two residents died and 71 residents were displaced.
- Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services responded to 312 fires at SRO buildings in 2021. During this time, inspection reports for 34 SROs show dozens of issues with disconnected fire alarms in rooms, missing door closers, sprinkler lines and other fire safety issues.
The end of the street sweeps marks a turning point in the history of the Downtown Eastside. Existing tensions in the neighbourhood that have provided fodder for the demonization and oppression of poor people, of drug users, and of Indigenous people for years are now more visible than ever. These are not the result of a community’s failures or or the failure of unhoused individuals – they are the symptoms of a system that has failed a community and the residents who live there.
Until all levels of government respond meaningfully to the urgent need for safe, dignified, accessible, welfare-rate housing, the City of Vancouver cannot return to covering up this crisis by simply reinstating the sweeps and perpetual displacement of unhoused and precariously housed peoples. The City of Vancouver must uphold its responsibility to prevent displacement, an immediate and pressing threat to the health and safety of unhoused residents living in the Downtown Eastside. To proceed with this decampment would mean undoing the work that block stewards have done to develop new ways of keeping the community clean and safe, and our efforts to build relationships and trust with those who are living on Hastings Street.
We need housing, we need dignity, we need the City of Vancouver and the Province of BC to take ownership of the safety issues they have created through years of inaction, hostility and neglect.
The Our Streets program will continue to support and uplift unhoused residents in the Hastings Street tent city until these needs are met.