Property legally owned by Downtown Eastside street market vendors is being seized amid a police crackdown on stolen goods to deter theft in the neighbourhood, says a market organizer.

Vendors selling donated goods, items recovered from garbage bins or their own used property have had their items taken because officers judge it to be stolen based on how new it is or whether the owner can provide a receipt, said Sarah Blyth.

“They’re getting donations from bingo or donations to the market and (police) are taking those donations, and you’re guilty until you prove you’re innocent,” Blyth told CTV News.

The street market is a society that runs a souk-like collection of booths operated by vendors on city property on Hastings Street. Police have increased patrols in the area since Jan. 28 in response to a spike in theft reports and violent crime.

In the first two weeks, there were about four assaults per week recorded on that strip. Since the crackdown, there have been only two assaults in the past two weeks, said Deputy Chief Howard Chow.

“Violent crime is down and residents are able to use the sidewalks again,” Chow said at a press conference where he showed off garden tools, knives and two bicycles recovered in the operation, just some of about $20,000 in stolen goods he says his officers have taken off the street.

“The unit block of East Hastings is known as the ‘merch block.’ This is where predatory fences thrive and vulnerable people are exploited,” he said.

It’s estimated that some $50,000 a day in stolen goods is traded on that street—a number that rivals the drug trade. Previous operations by police have focused on the “predatory fences” who commission thefts from desperate addicts and flip the goods on sites like Craigslist or ship them overseas to China.

But the increased patrols have resulted in officers questioning those selling locally, advocates say, including one binner named Chris who said he got his wares of a squash racquet, some shorts and a flashlight while roaming the alleys and combing people’s garbage. He’s homeless and gets by recycling those goods, making about $40 a day.

Chris says an officer seized a day’s worth of goods last week.

“He literally took my bags, everything I have. He said, ‘you can pick it up at the property office,” Chris told CTV News. “I mean clothes, tools, stuff I go out all night and work for. He can take it in a matter of seconds and then I have nothing. This is how I feed myself. This is how I pay for the bus.”

That is happening a lot, said Anna Cooper of Pivot Legal Society.

“Because those items look, new the default presumption by the VPD is that it’s stolen and they’re taking it,” Cooper said. “Police are putting people in a precarious situation without it being for a proper law enforcement purpose.”

She said it’s unlikely that homeless people or addicts would fill out the paperwork required to get their stuff back.

Chow told CTV News that the VPD had received very few complaints about seizing items improperly.

“Our members are not arbitrarily going down there and grabbing whatever property,” he said. And if something is donated to the market, “all we’re asking is show us the receipts or a letter or something so we can leave those items alone.”

Shane Bowlus, the DTES Street Market’s head of security, told CTV News it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to carry a receipt for the items they have.

He said the market is considering a new way to keep track of items that are seized: a set of security cameras that would record police leaving with the goods.