The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and the Pivot Law Society held a news conference on Friday calling for an end to daily "street sweeps."
Street sweeping is a street cleaning initiative where city workers, accompanied by police officers, "sweep" the sidewalk to ensure that they are cleared. Homeless people on the Downtown Eastside are asked to move all their belongings off the street by 9 a.m.
VANDU and Pivot conducted almost 100 interviews with homeless people who reside within a two-block radius of Hastings and Columbia over the course of three days earlier this week.
The week of Oct. 11 to 17 marks Homelessness Action Week in Vancouver.
Meenakshi Mannoe, criminalization and policing campaigner with Pivot Law Society, told the news conference that its interviews revealed people have lost "invaluable personal belongings" to these sweeps. This includes Indigenous art passed through generations, family photos and ashes of loved ones.
"There's an incredible cost to the street sweeps," said Mannoe, who added that city workers also throw away essential survival items like tents, carts, umbrellas, and winter clothing.
VANDU community organizer Vince Tao told CBC that these sweeps occur often multiple times a day and also happen in other areas where there are people trying to camp out, including Crab, Oppenheimer and Strathcona parks.
The Vancouver Police Department confirmed in a statement to CBC that it has been working with the city for years to clear and clean Downtown Eastside sidewalks on a daily basis.
In fact, in 2009, street sweeps were also in the news when DTES residents held a news conference outside the police station, attended by a young David Eby, then with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and currently the attorney general, to protest the practice.
The VPD says people are notified on a daily basis that city crews will need to clean the area for health and safety reasons and to guarantee safe passage, especially for people with mobility issues.
"If people are camped out or loitering in areas which need to be cleaned, they will be asked to move during the cleaning process," it said in a statement, adding it tags valuable items at its property office if no owner is present.
Robyn, who prefers to be referred to by first name, resides in the Downtown Eastside and spoke at the news conference.
"My boyfriend and I had our tents sliced up, and they used the excuse to say they are checking inside to see if there are overdoses taking place."
Alexandra Flynn, an assistant professor at the Allard school of law said that incidents that have occurred during sweeps could be considered theft.
"If you don't have items that belong to you to keep you safe, to keep you dry, to keep you healthy, you will suffer on a day like today," said Flynn, as rain poured in the background.
The City of Vancouver was contacted but has yet to respond.