Downtown Eastside Groups Unite Against Street Sweep

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“The only reason people are being harassed and pushed off the sidewalks is because discrimination against the poor has become official City policy,” said Karen Ward on Monday, November 30th. Ward, from Gallery Gachet, was speaking to a crowd that gathered together for a news conference on organized in opposition to the City’s displacement of survival street vendors from East Hastings street.

The City’s latest displacement of street vendors is part of a longer history of criminalizing survival street vending and poverty in Vancouver. Al Fowler  explained, “I was street vending before, but I can’t anymore because last year I got a six month conditional sentence for street vending and I was thrown into jail twice. I was made into a criminal because I was a street vendor. But we are not criminal, we are just poor people trying to survive.” Fowler added, “This is not just about the war on drugs, it is the war on the poor.”

The news conference included speakers from Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP), the Right to Remain project, and Pivot Legal Society. Approximately 40 members, including speakers from Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS) and Eastside Illicit Drinkers Group for Education (EIDGE) arrived to the news conference chanting: “Whose streets? Our Streets!”

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Al Fowler speaking to the media

Displacement doesn’t make the street safer for low-income people

The news conference was held on the 0 to 100 block of East Hastings at the epicentre of the City’s attack on street vendors and homeless people, where only two weeks ago there was a large and thriving survival street market. Rob Morgan, board member of WAHRS, explained it this way: “I noticed after welfare day that this street was bare. I am a peer research assistant, for an eviction study, and all my clients were on this street. When I did the count on this block on any given Saturday, there used to be 200 vendors. The cops I talked to say they never displaced nobody. But no one is here [since the sweep]. Isn’t that displacement?”

Tracey Morrison, speaking on behalf of WAHRS’ 300-strong membership, also denounced the City’s move to displace and criminalize street vending. “A lot of us [WAHRS members] do survival vending down here,” Morrison explained, “and it is totally appalling that the City and the VPD is making our community into a ghost town. What they took away from us is our home and I can’t find my friends anymore. The streets are not safe for our members with more police patrolling the street, threatening to throw away our belongings and giving away tickets. This needs to stop. We need to have our streets. We need to have our home back and our community back.”

Morgan echoed Morrison’s concerns about safety and the increased policing of Pigeon Park. “They [the park rangers] said they are here to make the park safer, but when I used to sit and drink in Pigeon Park before the park rangers patrolled it – I was safe. I asked the park rangers last week, what will you do if you see one of my brothers or sisters drinking here and they said, “we will call the cops.” All the illicit drinkers have been displaced from the park – they are not safer and I am not safer. I don’t think they [the police and park rangers] are here to provide safety.”

“When I came here from out East, I was homeless,” said Phoenix Winter of Carnegie Community Action Project. “One of the things I loved about the Downtown Eastside was that, unlike other areas of the city, I could come here, sit and talk to people, hang around and not get pushed out by security or police. It is so sad for me to see how it has changed now. The City said that people who are homeless or just hanging around would not be kicked out or displaced but if you look down the street, it’s empty.”

Phoenix Winter

Phoenix Winter

Last week CCAP conducted a survey with over 60 survival street vendors. According to Winter, “the survey found the vast majority of street vendors are vending because welfare rates are not high enough, because they don’t have housing or are on disability. They are doing street vending to survive. However, because of the crackdown, the vast majority of street vendors surveyed said they can’t make as much money anymore. One street vendor CCAP talked to even said they had to now sell their body as a way of surviving. Instead of feeling safer, the majority of vendors surveyed are worried that crime and violence will increase in the neighbourhood as people are pushed to more and more desperate actions to survive.”

Dishonesty and Broken promises

Grace Eiko Thomson, from the Right to Remain project, talked about the longer history of displacement in the Downtown Eastside.I am a person who at seven years old was expelled from this area together with my family, by the federal government and by the City of Vancouver in 1942,” Eiko Thompson explained. “As a result, I grew up in Winnipeg. I returned here 20 years ago, to what I believe is my home to find the City of Vancouver had totally ignored and abandoned this area for years… and now people here don’t have the right to remain. People down here are discriminated against in a racist way, just like we were.”

Grace Eiko Thomson

Grace Eiko Thomson

Karen Ward added that, “when the mayor apologized for the treatment of Japanese Canadians during the second world war, part of the official motion was that passed in 2013 was a promise that human rights of any group in the city would not be violated in such a way again. I served on the LAP planning committee for the Downtown Eastside and again it was explicitly promised that displacement would not occur in this manner and that the rights of low-income people would be protected. And yet city council continues to let people get renovicted and displaced from our community.”

Doug King, from Pivot Legal, was the final speaker of the day. He outlined his concerns about the City’s approach towards street vending in the DTES. “We feel that the City has been dishonest about what they have been doing here.They have been saying that they are not displacing people and not ticketing people, and what we are hearing is that this is not necessarily the truth. We know that this displacement is real, we know that people have been forced to leave the 0 block and that this is having a profound impact on their ability to survive. We are starting to hear stories from homeless people about the fact that they are being moved not just from the 0 block but now also from the alley ways, where they had to go after the 0 block was sweeped.”

“At the heart of this is the Street and Traffic bylaw,” King elaborated. “We are asking the City to change this bylaw. They need to stop criminalizing homelessness. They need to stop criminalizing poverty in our city. The City has been telling us that it is okay that we have this bylaw, because they are not enforcing it. But what I see is enforcement, and if you are going to have this bylaw and if you are going to enforce it, we need to look at what our options are and whether or not this bylaw is constitutional and whether or not there is a court challenge here that has to happen.”

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We are here to resist

Ward closed the news conference by reiterating “the basic right of poor people to inhabit public space.” She continued, “It is safer for us to survive out here on the streets, with our friends and relations, than it is to be be shunted into the alleys, where the terrible tragedies that have pierced the Downtown Eastside repeatedly because people are not visible to each other.”

“It is important for the diversity of any City to have people who are not rich,” Ward explained. “We are an essential part of this City and we will fight for our right to remain here. We are going to take vending back from the shadows, and reclaim our streets. We are not going anywhere. To our Mayor, our council, the developers, to the powers that be: we are here to resist, we are all here together and we have allies and friends across the city. It is time to get back to work because these are our streets.”