Downtown Eastside residents complain city sweeps target marginalized people's belongings
A group of Downtown Eastside residents and advocates gathered for a news conference Friday morning to decry street sweeps conducted by the City of Vancouver, which they say target people sleeping outdoors on East Hastings Street.
City staff, accompanied by police, go block by block in the neighbourhood gathering anything on the sidewalk and putting it in garbage trucks.
According to people living outdoors in the neighbourhood, that often includes their tents, tarps, clothing, outdoor survival gear such as rain gear and irreplaceable personal effects.
“One lady told me that they threw her mother’s ashes away,” said Lorna Bird, an area resident. “Clothing and that, that can be replaced, but there’s heirlooms that were taken that will never be replaced. And these people, that’s all they have in the world…their last belongings.”
Another woman said she and her boyfriend have lost everything they own three different times during the sweeps.
”We had to start from scratch. Like a whole shopping cart full of our belongings that we worked really hard to get and consider personal stuff,” said the woman, who only identified herself as Robyn. “My boyfriend and I have had our tent sliced up. And they’ve used the excuse that they’re checking inside to see if there’s overdoses taking place, or whatever, but they’ll leave everything else exposed to the elements so that rats can get in there.”
In a statement, the City of Vancouver said frontline street crews work to keep the sidewalks passable, clean and safe, and that they do their best to ensure that personal belongings aren’t thrown in the trash.
“Staff are trained to remove material that has been abandoned – not to remove items that are clearly personal belongings,” the city said. “We sincerely regret that personal belongings may have at times been mistakenly mixed in with the considerable amount of debris cleared from sidewalks each day.”
According to the city, staff working on the cleanup crews are trained in emergency response procedures, how to link people with resources available through community services teams, violence prevention and de-escalation, and Indigenous relations and cultural safety.
Alexandra Flynn, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia's Allard School of Law says that many of the people impacted by the street sweeps are marginalized and dealing with layers of trauma. In some cases, they are living with serious substance addictions and mental health concerns.
“For those who live in a secure form of housing, you have four walls, you have a door that locks, you can keep as much stuff as you want inside and not have to worry about it,” Flynn said.
She believes in some cases the street sweeps violate people’s rights.
“If the city really wanted to consider people’s dignity, not just their rights, not just the law and what the Charter of Rights and Freedoms says, but their dignity,” Flynn said. “They would understand that people don’t have other options when it comes to their things.”
The city says Vancouver police accompany crews on the sweeps to ensure their safety.
“If people are camped out or loitering in areas which need to be cleaned, they will be asked to move during the cleaning process,” the VPD said in a statement.
“We do have our homeless outreach and community police officers working in the area to assist people getting into safe and secure housing if that is what they need or request.”
The statement went on to say that officers will tag valuables found unattended and transfer them to the property office.
Myles Harps, a Downtown Eastside resident who works with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users says he has seen the sweeps conducted several times in a single day – compounding the suffering of some of the city’s most marginalized residents.
“We are Canadians. This shouldn’t be happening in our country. Not at all,” Harps said. “We should be disgusted with who we’ve become as a nation when we allow this to happen right in front of our eyes.”