British Columbia

Advocates call for public health, human rights-focused approach to DTES decampment

Researchers and community organizers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside are calling for a public health, human rights-based approach to encampments one week after the City of Vancouver started dismantling a community that's been set up along East Hastings Street. 

'The first priority has to be to offer housing, not to displace people to nowhere,' researcher says

Vancouver police officers arrest multiple people during a melee while the city was dismantling tents on East Hastings in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver, British Columbia on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022.
Multiple people were arrested and displaced as the City of Vancouver began to dismantle shelters along Hastings Street on Aug. 9, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Researchers and community organizers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside are calling for a public health and human rights approach to encampments one week after the City of Vancouver started dismantling structures and, ultimately, a community that's been set up along Hastings Street. 

On July 25, Vancouver's fire chief issued an order to remove tents and other structures lining the streets, citing fire risk.

The removal of structures, people and their belongings began on Aug. 9. 

Aaron Bailey, a researcher and program co-ordinator with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and two scientists with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, Marilou Gagnon and Bernie Pauly, have penned an open letter calling for adequate, safe housing, among other basic human rights, as part of a public health approach to the situation in that neighbourhood. 

"I think front and centre in this issue is that people are being asked to leave with nowhere to go, and they're simply being displaced," Pauly told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition.

A public health approach, she said, ensures residents of the Downtown Eastside encampment would have access to safe housing before displacing them. 

"One of the barriers in a city like Vancouver or a city like Victoria … is that housing costs are very high," Pauly said. 

"The situation that's created in encampments is really something that's being created by policy choices over time."

She said that some people who choose to live in structures outside do so because the housing available for them isn't safe or suitable. 

"Buildings are often not habitable, and that's why they choose to live outside, or shelters are not safe, and there is a sense of safety and community created within encampments."

A person in a high-vis jacket removes garbage from a pavement with a tent on it, opposite a store.
An encampment built up along East Hastings Street in Vancouver over a number of weeks, and now officials are taking structures and belongings down, leaving people with nowhere to go. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

She said the province and the city need to work together to create housing options. 

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart agrees — speaking on CBC Radio last week, he said "cities on their own can't do this" and called for further investment in housing from the federal and provincial governments. 

The City of Vancouver has deferred questions about where these people are supposed to go to B.C. Housing, the provincial Crown corporation responsible for social housing. 

B.C. Housing says it was given short notice to find space for those forced from their tents on Hastings Street, and there is little housing inventory available. 

"Housing space is tight in Vancouver," B.C. Housing said in an emailed statement.

However, it said it is doing its best to find alternative housing. 

Murray Rankin, the minister responsible for housing in B.C., has declined several interview requests from CBC. 

David Eby, who was housing minister until mid-July when he announced he would be running to become the leader of the B.C. NDP, says his government is trying and will continue to try to build housing.

"The challenges of the Downtown Eastside are going to take provincial leadership and partnership with the City to expedite things like temporary modular housing that can be used as swing spaces as we redevelop the SROs and appropriate housing," he said.

"We need that sense of urgency from the city, and I think that we can get it, but I think that the province is going to have to convene it."

A number of tents, umbrellas, and paraphernalia lie on a pavement in front of a bank.
East Hastings Street in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighbourhood on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The letter outlines five priorities the writers say leaders need to look at: building healthy public policy, creating healthy living situations, strengthening individual and community health, investing in and supporting people with lived experience and reorganizing health systems. 

"The immediate solutions very much need to be focused on supporting the rights and the safety of encampment residents," Pauly said. 

"We do need to understand the needs of individuals in particular in terms of what their needs are related to housing. The first priority has to be to offer housing, not to displace people to nowhere."

A week after city officials started removing the tent city on Hastings Street, some residents still remain. We hear from one researcher about how she thinks the City could take a different approach.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Courtney Dickson

Broadcast and Digital Journalist

Courtney Dickson is a journalist working in Vancouver, B.C. Email her at courtney.dickson@cbc.ca with story tips.

With files from Stephen Quinn and The Early Edition

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