Multiple arrests following skirmish with police as tents removed from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

A number of people have been arrested following a skirmish with police in the Downtown Eastside as city staff began the process of removing tents and other structures along a busy street in the neighbourhood, forcing dozens of people living in the area to move.

The arrest came after a brawl broke out outside the Carnegie Centre on Main and Hastings streets sometime after 3 p.m. Security guards at the centre alerted police to a man causing a disturbance. Residents and community activists came to the defence of the man, and a brawl ensued with police deploying pepper spray. 

Police shut down the intersection of Main and Hastings. Three organizers from the Stop the Sweeps campaign were arrested, in addition to other advocates. Vancouver police have not confirmed the number of arrests. 

A notice handed out Tuesday said removal would first focus on the highest risk areas, adding in a statement that the process would begin outside the Regent Hotel on East Hastings Street and continue for weeks.

A Vancouver police officer pepper sprays a photojournalist while other officers arrest a man during a melee while the city was dismantling tents on East Hastings in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver, British Columbia on Aug. 9, 2022. 

Workers started Tuesday by picking up garbage and sweeping up litter, while others told residents they could help pack up belongings and take them to a temporary, short-term storage area on Main Street.

Several residents said they hadn’t heard about the removal until reporters asked.

Edgar Alan Rossetti, an artist, said he’d move if city workers came but planned to return as he’s done before.

“My game plan is pack my stuff up, and anybody needs help, I’ll help them because these guys have been more my family than anybody else over the past few years,” said Rossetti, 55, who said he’s lived in the same spot outside Portland Housing Society for more than two years.

Asked where he’ll go next, he said, “Two feet away. I’ll go around the block, and I’ll camp back over there.”

One woman sat and quietly played a wooden piano as people shuffled around her on East Hastings Street. 

“I give a lot of credit to people who have a tent and make it a home,” said Laura Gravis.

“It’s a neighbourhood, and they’re trying to make the best out of what they’ve got. Because of our economy, today and the lack of available housing and the stigma put on particular individuals because of their drug use or because of jail or because of the way they look … some people are just trying to live.”

Forced evictions a human rights issue: advocate

The sidewalks were still packed with dozens of tents in many areas of East Hastings by late morning. In some sections, sidewalks were impassable because tents and shelters were grouped so tightly.

The city’s fire chief ordered the tents to be cleared last month, saying they were an extreme fire safety hazard.

Advocacy group Pivot Legal Society said clearing the community will violate a pact signed by the city, the province and Vancouver’s park board to ensure supports for those without shelter.

People help move belongings after tents were dismantled on East Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver on Tuesday. 

“A big part of the issue is that there is nowhere for people to go. Forced evictions to nowhere run afoul of multiple human rights issues,” said Anna Cooper, a staff lawyer with the society.

“The reason there is nowhere for people to go is B.C. Housing and the city have actually admitted we do not have enough adequate housing options available at this moment.”

The society said in a statement the city created the deteriorating conditions in the encampment by failing to provide promised storage, hygiene facilities and garbage disposal, but is now citing those safety and health concerns as the reason for the forced removal.

Pivot called on Vancouver to provide “livable, dignified, and accessible housing” and for the fire department to acknowledge the unique needs of encampment residents by creating a harm reduction approach to fire safety that accounts for challenges ranging from toxic drugs to police violence and trauma due to colonization.

City cites risk to public safety

Last month, Vancouver’s fire department ordered the immediate removal of tents and structures along East Hastings Street due to “numerous urgent safety concerns.”

On Tuesday, fire crews said their priority was creating a clear path for firefighters to access buildings in the event of a fire.

Tents and other structures outside buildings currently block doorways, fire hydrants, fire escapes, hose connections and spaces where crews would need to plant ladders for rescues from upper floors, they said.

“Our crews are going to be facing a really difficult time pulling up here … and getting adequate water onto that fire in a reasonable amount of time [with tents here],” said Matthew Trudeau, public information officer with Vancouver Fire & Rescue Services.

“This is incredibly dangerous.”

There had been several fires in the area in the weeks before the order came down, including ones that destroyed a community church and a Value Village store.

Trudeau said the fire department had seen an increase in fires of more than 103 per cent since 2018. As of Tuesday, there had been 1,016 fires in the downtown core this year.

City staff are pictured bringing barricades to close traffic on East Hastings Street as tents and other structures are removed on Tuesday.

Cooper said advocates agree fire safety needs to be addressed but disagree with the city’s approach.

“Fire safety is 100 per cent a public safety issue, and none of the advocates are saying that it isn’t,” she said. “What we’re saying is it’s not the only public safety issue, and it cannot be addressed in a way that’s to the exclusion of other safety issues.”

Asked where the people living in the tents were expected to move, the City of Vancouver deferred questions to B.C. Housing. The housing agency has not specified where people might be able to resettle.

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