Over the last few days, people across so-called Canada have witnessed the mass decampment of people sheltering along Hastings Street in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. While the City of Vancouver devised this latest act of displacement (evident in leaked documents) every level of government permits these degrading and inhumane approaches to the rights of poor, unhoused, illegalized substance users. Not only are anti-homeless and anti-drug user stigma the basis of many “social welfare” policies, but they have been increasingly weaponized in the mainstream media, the politicking of elected candidates, and the dark money firms that fund them.
Colonial and capitalist dispossession
Sadly, displacement is not new. Certainly not in Vancouver – a colonial enclave built on the territory and ancestors of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, səlilwətaɬ, and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Nations. Colonial logic and dispossession guide the city’s logic. As longtime local organizer Nate Crompton wrote in 2021:
“Forced displacement and the eviction of tent cities is a key if forgotten part of the history of Strathcona, beginning in the late nineteenth century with the original settler-colonial displacement from Indigenous settlements at Kumkumalay (present-day Dunlevy) and elsewhere in the area…these moments of displacement – and the counter-movement of resistance and self-organization that accompany them – need to be remembered and revisited in our process of learning, organizing, and resisting today.”
While there has been some sustained attention on street sweeps over the last year, credited to the work of the #StopTheSweeps Coalition, these sweeps are also nothing new. They’ve happened under municipal governments of every political stripe – including the previous mayor (a former NDP Member of Parliament). The latest sweep occurs under Mayor Ken Sim, but with the provincial NDP leader and premier David Eby referring to them as “sad” but necessary. But, it’s much more than sad: the sweeps represent a deliberate, sustained policy choice favouring capitalist and colonial accumulation by dispossession rather than enacting the recommendations repeatedly presented to government and bureaucracy.
The sweep is integral to other forms of anti-homeless displacements – such as the forced eviction of people sheltering in tent cities, the use of police-based trespass prevention programs, and the looming possibility of using involuntary and coercive “treatment” to remove unhoused people from public space under the guise of healthcare.
This week, the police-led operation in the Downtown Eastside rightfully sparked national attention. On the ground, it was stunning. City blocks were shut down for hours at a time. At the same time, the Vancouver Police Department used the Hastings decampment as an opportunity for a militarized operation in the heart of the city. The VPD has not released an estimate of the costs of this ongoing displacement. Particularly notable, since last year, they released a widely-discredited report on Vancouver’s “social safety net,” where they noted, “VPD officers have been exposed personally and directly to the devastating effects of inadequately addressed complex social issues.” What they failed to mention is that the VPD is an institution that perpetuates (and materially benefits) from pervasive social inequality. As families impacted by police murder asked last year – “who dies while police budgets rise?”
BC Housing and local social service operators remained unaware of the clearance action at 9 AM when the decampment started on Monday. The police, however, were able to mount a massive operation – begging the question, how long had they been planning this?
There was rooftop surveillance, a brief period where traffic cameras were disabled, an illegal and unconstitutional media exclusion zone was enacted, and the large-scale police deployment that lasted 2 days, as cops accompanied unionized city workers (CUPE 1004 members to be precise) as they stripped the little shelter, survival gear, and personal property from every single person sheltering in a tent on Hastings or arterial side streets.
The actions of the City, police, and the unionized workers who participated in the Hastings decampment, constitute an assault on poor people. Amidst overlapping public health emergencies (both of which have been largely ignored to make way for the “new normal”), an enduring housing shortage, and a rainfall alert lasting until Sunday people have demanded that City staff and VPD answer the obvious question: where are people supposed to go? There’s no housing available (and much of the single-room occupancy housing stock is completely unlivable), there are inadequate shelter facilities, and there is not even adequate storage. So folks on the street are forced to fill their “personal storage” totes – cruelly repurposed waste bins – under threat of police removal or arrest.
When this two-part operation wraps up, people will still be unhoused, they will still be sheltering on the sidewalks, and there will still be visible poverty in the city. Local organizers, Hamish Ballantyne and Molly Beatrice wrote this week, “the Hastings street sweep does nothing to address homelessness.” People will just be wetter, colder, and trying to find their belongings through the byzantine maze of calls to city services to negotiate the return of their belongings, to a swatch of sidewalk.
To fight against street sweeps, sign the petition to government reps to say DISPLACEMENT = DEATH. Support the demands to #StopTheSweeps: Ending Cyclical Displacement & Criminalized Poverty in Vancouver, including: eliminate by-laws against people who rely on public space, defund police budgets and redirecting funds from street sweeps to local organizations and individuals, provide funding and storage facilities, conduct a peer-led stigma audit, drastically expand public spaces and outdoor amenities, and lobby the provincial government to add “social condition” as a protected human right.
In addition, please consider how to undertake autonomous, mutual aid: you can pick up supplies and show up on the block to redistribute them, or meet up with folks and serve hot food and drinks. To paraphrase the Defund 604 Network, we can decentralize & deinstitutionalize care to enact collective abolitionist ethics. We can overwhelm the hate enacted by the city and cops by showing up with care and support.
Fundraisers include Hastings Residents Evicted by Police (Encampment Solidarity), MASS DECAMPMENT SUPPORT NEEDED (Distro Disco), and Call out for support for people on the down town east side (okimawiskwew). From Saturday afternoon, members of the #StopTheSweeps coordinated an emergency warming site in the DTES, at Oppenheimer Park, where survival gear has been passed along and folks are invited to seek respite from the “long duration rainfall” weather alert issued by Environment Canada.
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