Health care system, health of the homeless at risk amid DTES decampment: Union

A union representing more than 50,000 B.C. health-sector workers says the City of Vancouver’s ongoing efforts to clear homeless encampments from the Downtown Eastside puts both the health of those people — and the health care system — at risk.

City crews supported by police began dismantling the encampment around East Hastings Street last week, more than half a year after the city’s fire chief issued an order to remove structures from the area citing life safety risks.

Click to play video: 'Crews return to remove Downtown Eastside tents and structures'

Crews return to remove Downtown Eastside tents and structures

Read more: ‘Nothing has changed’: Vancouver decampment continues through Easter long weekend

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Hospital Employees’ Union spokesperson Mike Old said the process has lacked dignity for the unhoused and been “a bit cruel.”

But he said the greater concern was the effects it would have on the area’s homeless — and the broader health care system.

Click to play video: 'Easter Sunday marks day 5 of Hastings decampment'

Easter Sunday marks day 5 of Hastings decampment

“From our perspective, this really puts the lives and health status of these individuals at some risk,” he said.

“There’s just no question that the result of decampment last week will be more people visiting emergency rooms, more people putting pressure on community health services, and as we know those services are already stretched to the max.”

Old said there’s no question the conditions in the encampment were “not ideal at all,” but that by breaking it up without offering housing the city was simply moving residents elsewhere, where they could be at greater risk of extreme weather, mental health issues or toxic drugs.

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The Candian Union of Public Employees has also criticized the decampment, but says its workers can’t refuse the work under labour laws.

“The tasks demanded of these workers stands in contrast to our advocacy, which calls for a harm reduction and a trauma-informed approach when dealing with vulnerable populations,” it said in a statment.

Crews were back in the Hastings Street area Monday, and the city has said to expect repeated street sweeps supported by police aimed at keeping sidewalks clear.

Read more: ‘This is my neighbourhood’: Vancouver tent city residents say they have nowhere to go

But some of the people who were sheltering there have defied the sweeps, returning repeatedly in the six days since the decampment began.

“Currently I am homeless because my place got taken. I just hope they have a place lined up for us people to go to, because you are kicking everybody out. Where do you expect everybody to go?” Downtown Eastside resident Clorissa Robillard told Global News.

Click to play video: 'Political Panel: Downtown Eastside decampments'

Political Panel: Downtown Eastside decampments

“I’m one of the few sticker-outers,” added Jason Rondeau.

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“It is what it is. They tell us to take it down, we take it down, we move, and then we come back. It’s the only thing we can do, really. The shelters are worse than the streets are. They’re more violent, they’re dirtier, they’re just not very good at all.”

Kevin Barlow, executive director of the Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association, said the camp was not a safe or appropriate place for people to be living.

He said a criminal element had established itself among the homeless living in the area, and was primarily responsible for an increase in crime and vandalism in the area — which was costing small businesses more than they could bear.

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Read more: ‘It is unsafe’: Vancouver asks police to help end Hastings Street tent encampment

But he said the city should not have let it get as bad as it was, and that simply clearing the camp out wasn’t a solution.

“Our agency and the non-profits that serve this agency are all saying they just wish a different approach was taken, because it’s really, come in and strongarm people who are desperate, they have nowhere else to go, and then you’re telling them to pack up and move on,” he said.

“It’s a powerful statement when people say I would rather sleep on the streets than go into a shelter or an SRO. So in many ways I question why the city took so long to take control of the situation.”

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Early numbers from the City of Vancouver show 18 of 56 people associated with structures removed during the first two days of the Hastings decampment accepted referrals to shelters.

Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim along with the city’s police and fire chiefs have said the encampment had to be dismantled because of a growing fire risk, along with increases in crime in the area.

B.C. Premier David Eby maintains the encampment is not safe for anyone, and insists there is space for people to shelter indoors.

“The situation there is not sustainable, we’ve had fires, assaults,” B.C. Premier David Eby told Global News in an interview on Focus BC Friday.

The province projects it will  have 110 additional units of permanent housing available for the unhoused over the next three months.

The Union Gospel Mission, which provides shelter and outreach to the homeless in the DTES, says it has seen an influx of people asking for basics like toiletries because their personal possessions have been dumped in the trash.

Vancouver city staff acknowledge campers likely will find their way to other neighbourhoods in the city.

— with files from Emily Lazatin and Grace Ke

&© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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