British Columbia

14 people arrested after occupying Vancouver elementary school

A group of approximately 30 homeless community members of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside converged on Lord Strathcona Elementary School on Saturday to use it is as "emergency housing" because of the COVID-19 crisis. Police said they made 14 arrests overnight.

Group says it broke into Lord Strathcona Elementary School to use it as 'emergency housing'

A group of approximately 30 homeless people and supporters are occupying Lord Strathcona Elementary School in East Vancouver. (Matthew McFarlane/CBC News)

Vancouver police arrested 14 people after a group of community members of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside broke into Lord Strathcona Elementary School on Saturday to use it for what they called "emergency housing."

Spokespeople for the group said the action was taken because it was impossible for thousands of homeless people to follow the provincial government's instructions to stay home amid the COVID-19 crisis.

"When you are living on the streets, there is no way to follow COVID safety measures, there's no way to keep your hands clean. All the bathrooms are closed and there's no running water, and there's no good, healthy food to eat," said spokesperson Flora Munroe in a press release from the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).

Police said they were called to the school around 6 p.m. PT on Saturday and found several people outside the building and 14 people inside. Police said those inside had barricaded doors and entrances.

"Police were met with hostile, and combative suspects inside the school who, at one point, threw wooden pallets and other large pieces of wood at officers," said Sgt. Aaron Roed.

He described the situation as a break-in and said that the people were in the school illegally.

Vancouver Police Department vehicles at Vancouver's Strathcona Elementary School on Sunday April 19, 2020. Police arrested 14 people after a group broke into the school on Saturday April 18 to use it as shelter. (Matthew McFarlane/CBC)

Officers moved in around 1 a.m. Sunday and arrested 12 people inside the building. Police said two other suspects fled to the roof of the building and were taken into custody about 8:30 a.m.

The VPD said there were no injuries among officers or those arrested, despite a situation police described as long, complex and dangerous.

Police said they found sleeping bags, tools and alcohol belonging to the suspects inside the school. The Vancouver School Board has been notified and will assess damage to the building.

Roed said police will pursue charges of break-and-enter against the individuals arrested. He says other charges could also be pursued. All 14 people are still in custody. Roed expects they will be released under conditions. Police have not yet released any details about the people such as their gender. age or city of residence.

Roed said the situation pulled officers away from policing other matters in the city, especially as the force also copes with the COVID-19 crisis.

"We are shocked that a situation like this happened during the pandemic."

Homeless people at risk

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, anti-homelessness advocates have said not enough is being done for the city's homeless population to protect them from the spread of the virus.

A number of measures have already been implemented by the municipal and provincial governments.

The City of Vancouver has secured contracts to provide regular cleaning and meal delivery to residents at 21 single-room occupancy hotels on the Downtown Eastside.

The Coal Harbour and Roundhouse community centres are operating as emergency response centres with a capacity of up to 160 people.

A sanitation station is pictured in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver. Public health officials fear COVID-19 will sweep through the neighbourhood. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Hundreds of hotel rooms have also been secured by B.C. Housing, but the rooms are only to house individuals once they have symptoms and need to self-isolate.

Nathan Crompton, a VANDU spokesperson, said the province needs to do more.

"It's puzzling why the province would think that's enough because their own health officer's saying that all British Columbians should be self-isolating," he said.

A man sleeps between two cars in the downtown Eastside in Vancouver on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The release from VANDU states that the provincial government should use the powers it has under a public health emergency to house people in hotel rooms in downtown Vancouver.

"Other cities have actually been a lot more active in opening up space, empty hotels, things like that," said Crompton. "Cities like San Francisco, [and] even Toronto have been a lot more proactive."

Crompton said the group was squatting at the northwest complex of the school, which he says is currently empty.

He said physical distancing guidelines were being followed inside and personal protective equipment was also being used by those inside.

'Rightfully feeling anxious'

On Sunday, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart also asked for the province to do more for vulnerable people in a release reacting to the arrests at Strathcona.

"Vulnerable residents, especially our neighbours in the Downtown Eastside, are rightfully feeling anxious for their safety" in light of COVID-19, he said.

He plans to ask Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Shane Simpson to outline his plan for the hundreds of hotel spaces and other shelter beds B.C. Housing has already secured.

"As always, we stand ready to work with the province to quickly implement their plan and are prepared to activate more spaces if the resources needed to staff and operate them are provided," he said.