John Niddrie, who works in the neighbourhood, says he was disgusted when he heard about the crime. ((CBC))

Vancouver police are investigating after a man was lit on fire Saturday night while sleeping outside on a couch in the city's east side.

The incident happened around 11:40 p.m. PT near Commercial Drive and E. Fifth Avenue, police said.

Police said it appears the 26-year-old man, from New Westminster, B.C., had been out drinking when he saw a couch on the sidewalk and decided to go to sleep.

Witnesses in the area reported seeing three men standing over the sleeping man and spraying some type of fluid, believed to be lighter fluid or a similar accelerant, on the victim before lighting him on fire, Insp. Eric Grummish said.

"The victim woke up from his sleep and ran off. He tore off the shirt he was wearing, which was burning, and ended up suffering some relatively minor burns," Grummish said.

Several witnesses intervened and tried to help the victim while the perpetrators fled.

The New Westminster man was taken to hospital, where he was treated for minor burns on the right side of his chest and right wrist.

Police said late Sunday they were still working to determine a motive for the crime.

Contrary to media reports, police said in a written statement "there is no information to suggest the motive for the assault had any hate bias related to it or that it was motivated by ethnicity, gender or any other factor."

Crime 'heinous,' says neighbour

People in the area say they were shocked and appalled by what happened.

John Niddrie, who works at a cafe close to where the crime happened, spent much of the day Sunday putting up posters in the coffee shop and on the street, calling for witnesses to come forward.

Niddrie said he was "disgusted" when he heard what happened.

"We just wanted to show support to the community. This is a heinous thing that has happened and we are trying to support the police to figure out what's going on here and get to the bottom of this and make sure everyone is OK," he said.

"It's not something that should be happening in our community, I think, not around here."

One of the culprits is described as a white man between 25 and 40, about six feet tall with a bald or shaved head. He was dressed in black and had tattoos on his arms.

The other two suspects are described as white men wearing black clothing.

Police are asking anyone who might have witnessed the incident or who might have information to call the Vancouver Police Department at 604-717-2541 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.