'Where else do they want us to go?' Downtown Eastside residents face uncertain future in wake of tent removals

·4 min read
Jessica Anuroff says she is staying put in her tarp tent on East Hastings Street and hopes to find housing in the near future. (CBC News  - image credit)
Jessica Anuroff says she is staying put in her tarp tent on East Hastings Street and hopes to find housing in the near future. (CBC News - image credit)

Jessica Anuroff's green tarp tent still stands on East Hastings Street a week after the City of Vancouver ordered the cleanup of sidewalks along several city blocks of the Downtown Eastside.

But home feels different. She says most of her belongings were taken by city staff and she faces increasing uncertainty about where to go next.

"Where else do they want us to go?" said Anuroff. "I'm just mainly tired and exhausted from everything."

In July, Vancouver's fire department ordered the immediate removal of tents and structures along East Hastings due to "numerous urgent safety concerns."

Last week, city staff began the process of removing tents and other structures, forcing dozens of people living in the area to move without other housing and shelter options.

Anuroff says she has little choice but to stay put, while others in the homeless community say those who were displaced are returning because they have nowhere to go.

While the city said the cleanup was needed for the safety of residents, advocates say they disagree with its approach because it is breaking apart the community and driving people into isolation, and more alternative housing options are needed.

CBC News
CBC News

Housing programs full

Since the start of the tent removal, at least one or two people are showing up every day at the Bloom Group Community Services Society, which offers housing support for residents in the Downtown Eastside

But there is no space for them, executive director Elizabeth Barnett says.

Baneet Braich/ CBC News
Baneet Braich/ CBC News

"We are doing our best to support folks, but if the programs are full … there's not really anywhere people can go," said Barnett, adding that she feels disappointed and angry with how the city has dealt with the encampment.

"I've noticed more people in the alleys, in darker corners, people on their own, more than I've seen before," she said.

Advocates worry the displacement means more people will use potentially toxic drugs alone.

"They have nowhere to go. So they're going to be in alleyways using alone and increasing exponentially the chance of death," said Vince Tao, a community organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users support group.

Tao said without sufficient housing, "they're just going to move right back right to the same place the next day, or just down the block."

He said the only solution to the issue is more housing options.

According to the city's website, since 2019 more than 550 social and supportive homes have opened in Vancouver which provide affordable housing and connections to off-site services such as health care, mental health, or substance use services.

The city says its also working with B.C. Housing to create approximately 350 new permanent supportive homes.

Permanent shelters and temporary modular homes also exist to provide relief to hundreds of people living without a home, according to the website.

But there's not enough space to help the people who have just been displaced from East Hastings, Barnett said.

"Right now, you sort of have three choices: you couch surf until you can't anymore; you live in subsidized housing if you can get in; or you live on the street. There's not enough choices there," she said.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

The condition of some housing options like single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) and shelters makes it preferable for some to sleep on the streets, says Lorissa Thordarson, who lives rough in the East Hastings area.

"The buildings are disgusting. They're riddled with bugs, or rats … I don't want to live in something like that," she said.

City says it's advocating for housing needs

When CBC News asked the City of Vancouver where it expects displaced people to go, a spokesperson said staff are in daily conversations with B.C. Housing to advocate for housing and shelter needs.

"City staff have been encouraging and supporting voluntary removal of tents and belongings, and regularly sharing information in person with those sheltering outdoors," an email statement said.

It said the city's outreach team is also working with B.C. Housing to bring forward people to be considered for housing.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

In a previous statement to CBC News, B.C. Housing said it does not have the spaces necessary to provide shelter for people who are being displaced in the Downtown Eastside.

"We have been clear with the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Fire Rescue Services that, on short notice, we do not have access to large numbers of new spaces in Vancouver to accommodate the timing of the emergency order," it said.

Barnett says she'd like the city to embrace a wider range of housing alternatives such as a campground and more harm reduction facilities, as well as subsidies for landlords to support people.

In the short term, she says she'd like to see police team up with mental health and social workers when officers are sent into the community.

And in the meantime, she emphasizes the need for compassion.

"You can't deprive people of this community they built with no other option. It's just illogical," she said.

The city did not specify if it plans to remove tents that have remained or reappeared on East Hastings.