Typed out, all-caps, and bolded messages threatening to burn down the tents of the homeless were distributed in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) area of Vancouver this past weekend, adding to the tension surrounding the tent city after an already-contentious month.

The flyers, titled "ATTENTION: HOMELESS" and littered with grammatical errors, took aim at members of the tent city on East Hastings Street. "TENTS & BELONGINGS ON THE SIDE WALKS WILL BE BURNED WITH GASOLINE AND PROPANE CANISTERS", it starts. "RESIDENTS THAT LIVE IN THE AREA WILL NOT YOU [Sic] TO DESTROY OUR COMMUNITY ANY LONGER WITH YOUR SELFISH [Sic]."

A resident of the area, Trey Helten, said he witnessed somebody throwing the flyers out of a car Saturday evening.

The flyers also threaten to burn down Insite, Vancouver and North America's first legal supervised-injection site. The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) released a statement on Monday acknowledging the threats, and confirmed that they have launched an investigation.

“We are working to identify the person or people responsible for these messages, which have understandably caused fear and anxiety in the Downtown Eastside. Until we know more, we’re asking everyone to be extra vigilant, to look out for their neighbours, and to report suspicious activity", said the VPD.

Vancouver DTES Tent City Tensions

The threats come at a time when tensions surrounding the Vancouver DTES tent city have reached a boiling point.

The tent city on Hastings formed in early July, consisting of as many makeshift structures as actual tents, spread down the sidewalks of Hastings Street for multiple blocks. Personal possessions were stored in shopping carts, lack of access to clean water was a concern, and the only public washroom available was that in the Carnegie Community Centre, on the corner of East Hastings and Main Street, according to the Vancouver Sun.

Tensions arose when Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services Chief, Karen Fry, issued an official order on July 25 to remove tents and structures along East Hastings Street. "Should a fire occur in the area in its current condition, it would be catastrophic, putting lives at risk and jeopardizing hundreds of units of much-needed housing", the City of Vancouver said.

The order came weeks after a fire ripped through a Value Village on the evening of June 30, and another burned down the Vancouver Street Church on the evening of July 6. Nobody was hurt in either incident and there is no indication that the DTES tent city had any effect on the fire.

In a statement on August 4, the #StopTheSweeps Coalition, an alliance between the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War (CPDDW), the Defund 604 Network, and the Pivot Legal Society, called out the use of fire safety as a pretext to clear out the DTES tent city. The Coalition "condemns the cynical use of ‘fire safety’ to disperse unhoused people with nowhere to go, effectively banishing them from the neighbourhood."

The VPD and city staff began the removal process on August 9, in an afternoon that resulted in multiple brawls and arrests. In a statement on August 12, Our Streets, a stewardship initiative in the DTES that formed following the arrival of the tent city, called out the VPD for how they managed the situation and treated residents of the tent city.

"On Tuesday August 9th at approximately 2:45PM, a militia of nearly 100 Vancouver Police Department (VPD) constables amassed at Main and Hastings instigated a police riot -- defined as the 'unrestrained and indiscriminate use of violence' on 'persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat.' The VPD’s brutal use of violence on bystanders concluded a day of mounting police harassment and surveillance that accompanied the decampment of Hastings Tent City by City of Vancouver (CoV) Engineering Workers and Vancouver Fire Rescue Services (VFRS)."

The Role of Government

In an interview with STOREYS, Anna Cooper, a staff lawyer at Pivot Legal Society, put the onus on the government for the current situation.

“If the government is not standing with people on the street, it sends a message. It signals that it’s okay to treat people this inhumanely. I haven’t seen any level of government stand with people in the way that we would like to see.” Cooper said she is aware that each level of government has different powers available to them, but believes that none of them are using their powers adequately to address the problems.

When asked what concrete steps she thinks the people of the tent cities may want the government to take to help them, Cooper pointed to city bylaws. The government should "suspend bylaws that make it illegal to shelter outside", she said. “Tent cities become crowded because there is a complex web of laws that, when put together, make it illegal to camp anywhere in Vancouver.” 

Cooper believes that the government makes a big deal about tent cities despite the fact that it's their own bylaws and policing that structurally creates these conditions, and then often uses those conditions as a pretext for things such as forced evictions.

In a letter to Mayor Kennedy Stewart on August 9, British Columbia's Human Rights Commissioner, Kasari Govender, said "the eviction of people and dismantling of their homes without adequate consultation and collaboration with those being evicted and without providing suitable alternatives is contrary to human rights law."

Without even getting to the level of human rights law, many believe the City of Vancouver is failing to honour its own agreement, which was signed with the Province and the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation in April 2021 to end the tent city in Strathcona Park. In the agreement, officially classified as a Memorandum of Understanding, commitments by those parties were outlined to help prevent future tent cities, which include developing housing options "so no one is forced to live outside."

Housing and Affordability In Vancouver

As is the case with many of the problems that plague Vancouver, this comes back to housing and affordability. These people often have nowhere to go because Vancouver has a severe shortage of supportive housing.

Statistics from a 2018 housing report by Carnegie Community Action Project help illustrate the problem:

  • 119 units of permanent welfare rate housing were built in the DTES in 2018, compared to 21 in 2017. Although it’s an increase from last year, at this rate, it would take over 10 years to house those currently homeless in the Downtown Eastside -- not accounting for any increase in homelessness each year.

The City of Vancouver conducts an annual count of the homeless population. Both this year and last year's count were cancelled due to the pandemic, but prior to that, the data did not show a decrease in homelessness. Another statistic:

  • The rate of change of new unaffordable housing (condos, market housing and social housing with rents above welfare shelter and pension rates) in the DTES in 2018 was 721:119 or about six unaffordable units to one affordable, permanent unit.

A report published by the Union of BC Municipalities earlier this year came to the conclusion that the province's housing supply was in fact meeting the growth in population, but that "housing affordability and accessibility have only gotten worse." This is to say: housing is being built, but most of them are not for the people who really need them. A final statistic:

  • The rate of change going forward into the foreseeable future with proposed and approved new DTES developments is 1,972:640 new unaffordable housing to social housing or about three to one. The new units could take up to seven years to build.

A Widening Gap

In 2017, Miloon Kothari, a former United Nations special rapporteur on housing, famously described Vancouver as an “apartheid city.” While the term has historically been used in regards to racial segregation, Kothari told CityNews that “it has since then been used to describe cities that have either through acts of omission or commission, created a morphological change where you have, by deliberate policy, isolated the wealthy neighbourhoods from the lower-income neighbourhoods.” In other words, Vancouver has a rich-poor divide.

Asked whether or not Kothari’s description is still accurate in 2022, Cooper told STOREYS that “there is clearly a widening gap.“ From her unique vantage point as a lawyer in Vancouver focusing on homelessness, she doesn’t see things getting better. “Increasingly, people who considered themselves middle class are experiencing housing precarity. It’s worsening. But I think more people are understanding that it’s a systemic issue."

Continuing to displace the homeless — as with the attempt to forcibly shut down the tent city — and furthering anti-homeless stigma — as with this weekend’s threatening flyers — only makes those issues worse and widens that gap. With a gap that wide and a divide this deep, there’s nowhere to go but down.