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Tents to be removed from Downtown Eastside despite little-to-no shelter space

Fire chief says order intended to protect, advocates say it does the opposite
Downtown Eastside community members and advocates showed up to a media briefing at the Vancouver fire station Tuesday (July 26) to confront officials about an order to remove tents from a section of East Hastings Street. Left to right: Pivot Legal Society campaigner Meenakshi Mannoe, Vancouver Area Network of Drug User’s member Eli Oda Sheiner, East Hastings Street resident Blue, Vancouver Area Network of Drug User’s board member Dave Hamm. (Jane Skrypnek/Black Press Media)

Downtown Eastside residents and advocates are calling a tent removal order issued for part of East Hastings Street Monday (July 25) “part of a political game” and say it will leave more than 150 people with nowhere to shelter amid a heat wave.

Fire Chief Karen Fry has ordered the City of Vancouver to remove all tents and equipment from several blocks of the street by 5 p.m. Wednesday. She says the structures pose a serious fire risk to the people living in them and the buildings nearby.

During a media briefing Tuesday (July 26), Vancouver Fire and Rescue Service public information officer Matthew Trudeau said their greatest concern is with entrances and exits to buildings being blocked. In the event of a fire or medical emergency, this could cost firefighters vital time, Trudeau said,

“The intent behind this is ensuring that we don’t lose more people in a fire.”

Trudeau added that fires in the Downtown Eastside have been on the rise over the last four year, and that the service has responded to 860 outdoor fires in the neighbourhood so far this year.

Not enough shelter space for residents set to be displaced

About a dozen people who live in the Downtown Eastside or work with community organizations there showed up to the media briefing Tuesday to confront officials about their decision.

Meenakshi Mannoe, a criminalization and policing campaigner with Pivot Legal Society, said more than 150 structures fall within the removal zone, according to an estimate they’ve been given. She said herself and a number of community members met with the City of Vancouver and BC Housing when they found out about the order Monday, and that they’ve been told no shelters exist for the people who are set to be displaced.

“Where are people supposed to go? Where are they supposed to find shade? Where are they supposed to meet with their outreach workers or any supports they have in the community?” Mannoe said.

In a statement to Black Press Media, BC Housing called shelter space in Vancouver “tight” and said they are working with outreach workers to try and find a solution.

“…we were clear with the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Fire Rescue Services that, on short notice, we do not have access to large numbers of new spaces in Vancouver to accommodate the timing of the emergency order,” it said.

In a statement Monday, Mayor Kennedy Stewart also acknowledged the lack of housing.

“…it is clear that demand for high quality, supportive housing still outstrips supply – especially during hot summer days when many residents cannot live safely inside SROs with poor ventilation,” he said.

Still, he said he fully supports Fry’s order.

READ ALSO: Vancouver fire chief orders tents removed from Downtown Eastside street, citing fire risk

Residents, advocates question motive behind order

Blue, a resident of East Hastings Street, is a fire warden and self-declared “mom” for the community. She said despite Fry completing her inspection July 21, Blue and others only became aware of the sudden change on Monday (July 25).

“All the people down there are panicking. They’re asking ‘Mom, what am I gonna do?’,” Blue said.

Advocates and community members are also contesting the real reasoning behind the order.

“We know that this was just one tool that the city has decided on because it’s tourist season. They want to make sure we (Vancouver) look good. It’s an election season. And so you’re just assisting the political agenda that is pro-displacement and pro-decampment,” Mannoe said addressing Trudeau. “When we look at a fire order like this, we see it as part of a political game that’s being played with people’s lives.”

Those people have until 5 p.m Wednesday to remove their structures and belongings from the street before inspections begin. Officials have not made it clear where they are supposed to go for shelter.

An Environment Canada-issued heat warning is set to remain in place for Vancouver until Saturday. The weather agency has warned that the high temperatures increase the risk of heat-illness, particularly for vulnerable individuals.

READ ALSO: ‘We should be disgusted’: Vancouver homeless advocates call for an end to street sweeps


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About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media after starting as a community reporter in Greater Victoria.
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