November 22, 2022
RE: Winter Housing Plan for People Who Shelter in Public Space
We write as seasonal weather changes take place, to inquire about housing plans from the city, province, and federal government for people who shelter in public space, including for the residents of the Hastings Tent City.
About Hastings Tent City
Hastings Tent City describes a community of at least 200 people sheltering in public space, between 0 W Hastings to 300 E Hastings and arterial streets. Throughout the summer of 2022 and into the fall, the conditions of this encampment have drawn national coverage, brought into sharp relief when the City of Vancouver attempted to force-evict residents through the use of a Fire Order on July 25, 2022. Residents of Hastings Tent City have since sought a judicial review of the Fire Chief’s order, asking the court to strike it down as unreasonable, and because it was issued without procedural fairness for people sheltering along Hastings.
The Urgency of Housing
There continues to be more homeless people than accessible sheltering spaces in Vancouver, and we have not been provided with any information about a rapid supply of new housing spaces. Previous information provided by BC Housing indicated that 40 residents of Hastings Street were “willing to accept housing,”
yet residents and city staff have confirmed that there was no actual offer of housing made by the Province. More than two months after Vancouver Fire Rescue Services issued a Fire Order to the City of Vancouver, there has been no concerted effort to safely house residents of Hastings in dignified, livable, pension- and shelter-rate housing.
We acknowledge that a few individual Hastings Tent City residents have received housing offers. We are heartened that some of our unhoused neighbours can plan to live indoors in the near future, especially as the seasons change and the living conditions outdoors become more challenging. We are, however, also aware that several community members have been offered a nominal stipend of $40 to move away from an intersection that is adjacent to an active construction site. This is a disturbing effort made by ‘housing outreach’ workers.
Safe, secure, and affordable housing continues to be the most critical need for people sheltering on Hastings Street. Residents have also voiced the necessity of government accountability for the unlivable conditions of housing located in the Downtown Eastside. In addition to the conditions of people sheltering on streets, sidewalks, and parks throughout the City, near-weekly fires in the disinvested single room occupancy (SRO) and supportive housing stock have displaced hundreds of residents from their homes and onto the streets.
These tragic, avoidable fires highlight how dangerous the current housing stock is in the Downtown Eastside, and why so many have no choice but to live in community, on the sidewalk.
Since April 2022, there have been devastating fires in the following buildings:
- April 8, 2022 - Winters Hotel (operated by Atira Property Management Inc.)
- August 22, 2022 – Princess Rooms (215 Princess Street) (operated by RainCity Housing)
- August 22, 2022 – 568 Powell Street (GML Enterprises)
- September 9, 2022 - 218 Keefer Street
- September 24, 2022 - Sereena’s Housing for Women (operated by Atira Women’s Resource Society)
Inadequate housing and shelter options, alongside fire and life safety issues in the SRO housing stock are amplifying the longstanding housing crisis that people living in poverty are facing. To date, there has only been one public investigation ordered into any of these fires; a coroners’ inquest into the deaths of two people caused by the Winters Hotel fire on April 11, 2022.
As we are midway through the fall season, we turn our minds towards our upcoming winter season which brings some of the harshest living conditions that people can endure outdoors.
Each year in response to at or below freezing temperatures, the city of Vancouver opens temporary Warming Centres and Extreme Weather Response Shelters for people to access overnight, typically operating for a few weeks at a time.
In this context, we request that cold-weather infrastructure be made available immediately to people who shelter in public space, including but not limited to:
- Indoor warming centres- to be operating 24/7 during any time that outdoor temperatures and conditions are not commensurate with human health (instead of at the current cut-off of -5°C)
- Emergency weather response shelters - to be operating 24/7 during any time that outdoor temperatures and conditions are not commensurate with human health (instead of at the arbitrary 0°C cut-off)
- Outdoor warming centres
- Tent- and tarp-safe personal heating options or a harm reduction alternative that provides personal heating options for use inside tents and tarps
- Climate-appropriate sheltering gear, i.e., warm and waterproof sleeping bags, tents & clothing
Though these shelters are a welcome respite from the elements for some people who shelter outdoors, the practical and ethical solution to protecting people from life-threatening weather conditions is safe, affordable, permanent housing stock.
Members of Our Streets have worked with Block Stewards, leaders and organizers who reside in the Hastings Street Tent City, to develop demands that reflect their housing needs. On November 6, they released their demands, which we support:
- Hands off tent cities: Government must respect tent city residents right to organize, their right to refuse unsafe housing, as well as provide basic survival infrastructure like bathrooms, showers, running water, and food;
- A real public option for housing: Develop and fund a public alternative to nonprofit-managed supportive housing;
- Real fire safety: The City and Vancouver Fire Services must keep buildings across the city up to code, as well as train and support Peer Resident Fire Inspectors and Building Inspectors. Fire safety orders must not be used to evict people from their current shelter, whether inside or on the street;
- Make landlords fix buildings: The City must make landlords pay for peer-informed plumbing and pest-extermination services to all existing SROs, supportive housing units, and purpose-built rentals;
- Protect all tenants’ rights under the law: Government must ensure supportive housing tenants are protected by the Residential Tenancy Act;
- Power to the tenants: management must cede power to democratic tenants’ councils who will help collaboratively run the building, including hiring and reviewing staff, as well as manage any policies that affect tenants directly; and
- Housing now: All levels of government must procure, permit, and protect shelter-rate housing units across the city, starting in the Downtown Eastside and CRAB Park.
We further request that all levels of government coordinate a response based on the needs identified by residents of CRAB Park, specifically procuring the adjacent parking lot to serve as a site for sheltering and setting up community amenities (i.e., warming tent, kitchen facilities).
We invite representatives of your Ministries and agencies to attend a meeting with residents of Hastings Tent City and their supporters at your earliest convenience. Tent cities throughout Vancouver are a critical and life-saving response to a state-driven housing crisis. Tent city residents must not be penalized for the housing crisis through a denial of basic necessities such as heat.
We ask that all levels of government cooperate to develop an urgent housing and shelter plan as soon as possible.
Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.