'I have no other place to go': the unhoused of the East Hastings strip pack their belongings

East Hastings being cleared

Franchesca Leo spent part of her Tuesday loading dirty laundry and other personal belongings into a large plastic garbage container outside her tarp-heavy shelter on East Hastings Street.

The City of Vancouver delivered the 360-litre bin in the morning to Leo as part of a multi-step plan to remove dozens of makeshift structures and tents from sidewalks along East Hastings.

“It’s been exhausting,” said Leo, a 45-year-old Indigenous woman, as she filled the bin that would eventually be transported to a storage site on either Main or East Cordova streets.

In between loading her bin, Leo filled out a BC Housing application form given to her by a friend but didn’t expect to immediately find a place to live; she planned to move further down East Hastings to another spot on the strip.

“I have no other place to go, but if I can’t stay here, I’ve got to go somewhere,” she said.

Firefighters fear tents could catch fire and spread to buildings

In the past week, BC Housing and Mayor Kennedy Stewart have told Vancouver Is Awesome that there is not enough housing for people living on East Hastings — a fact that is competing with Fire Chief Karen Fry’s order to remove all tents from the sidewalks for fear they could catch fire and spread to buildings.

On Tuesday, firefighters, police officers, city crews and others from various social service agencies were largely in standby mode as Leo and others slowly and methodically began to empty their belongings into the bins.

In the morning, police had closed the section of East Hastings between Main and Columbia streets as media and local residents gathered in front of the vacant Regent Hotel, which is the spot the city was focused on because of the concentration of shelters on the sidewalk.

Capt. Matthew Trudeau, public information officer for Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, said firefighters had answered 1,016 fires in the Downtown Eastside this year, including the Vancouver Street Church across the street from the Regent.

Regent Hotel vacant since 2018

Standing outside the Regent, Trudeau pointed to the vacant building and described the challenges firefighters would have if a fire started in the single-room-occupancy hotel, which the city closed in 2018 because of its dilapidated state.

“Our crews are going to be facing a really difficult time pulling up here seeing fire and smoke that's coming from this building and getting adequate water onto that fire in a reasonable amount of time,” he said, noting firefighters were called this weekend to a tent fire at 122 East Hastings. “This is incredibly dangerous.”

The city did not have anyone present Tuesday on East Hastings Street to answer questions but issued a news release in the morning that emphasized the street and traffic bylaw prohibits structures on sidewalks.

“This is a complex effort and the city appreciates the work of the many community organizations and social enterprises who have been contributing expertise and effort as well as the support of BC Housing and Vancouver Coastal Health,” the release said.

“We recognize that this work will have an emotional impact on the community and everyone involved. City staff will be seeking to conduct the work with thoughtfulness and care of the residents and their circumstances.”

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City crews delivered storage bins Tuesday to unhoused people on East Hastings Street. Photo Mike Howell

The city should consider using vacant lots to operate encampments

Kelin Ryan, 39, said he lives with a friend in a tent outside the Regent when he can’t get into a shelter space, saying “it’s a roll of the dice whether or not you’re going to have somewhere to sleep.”

Ryan, a trained heat and frost insulator, said the city should consider using vacant lots to operate encampments, where bathrooms and cooking facilities would be available, which is something that some U.S. cities offer to unhoused people.

Ryan said he collects social assistance but also works at day labour jobs.

“When I do go to day labour, anything that I earn is immediately subtracted off of my income,” he said. “So it's kind of a kick in the pants. Yeah, it helps me be able to eat today. But it gives me no ability to save anything or put anything aside for come the end of the month.”

Asked where he was going to stay Tuesday night, Ryan said: “Honestly, probably nowhere. At this point, I mean I really don't have any other options. So probably just going to stay where I am until they literally seize my belongings, or have provided me somewhere adequate or safe for us to go to.”

The city has purchased more hotels

Ironically, Ryan and Leo live outside a hotel — the Regent — that has been vacant since 2018 after the city forced its closure. The city did the same with the Balmoral Hotel in 2017. Combined, the hotels housed about 300 people.

The city has since purchased the hotels from the Sahota family, with plans to demolish the Balmoral and possibly renovate the Regent, which was closed because of its poor condition.

The Regent and Balmoral have made the city’s top-10 list of problem hotels for almost 20 years and have been cited by police in numerous reports for drug activity, violence and other crimes.

The city’s last homeless count in March 2020 recorded more than 2,000 people without a home.

The situation changed when the police clashed with a crowd

That scene changed in the late afternoon as police responded to an incident at Carnegie Centre unrelated to the encampment. Following the arrest of a man reported to be throwing computers and behaving erratically according to a VPD news release, “as officers were taking him into custody, the man resisted arrest and fought with police.”

The release continues, “a large crowd gathered and became hostile and combative with the officers. Several police officers were assaulted. Multiple arrests were made.”

The release said officers were in the area at the request of the city to stand by and keep the peace while city crews conducted their information campaign into the tent and structure removal on the strip.

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