The City of Vancouver apologized for harm caused during daily “street sweeps” of the Downtown Eastside and vowed to find an alternative way to keep the streets clear in a statement sent to CBC Wednesday.
The apology follows a motion before Vancouver city council Tuesday evening calling for changes to the way sweeps are conducted.
During these sweeps, which occur daily from Monday to Friday, city workers accompanied by police officers clear debris from sidewalks of the Downtown Eastside.
The city said their crews are trained to remove litter, garbage, and structures that are abandoned, but not items that are “clearly personal belongings.”
But advocates say the sweepers sometimes throw out items people value.
“We sincerely regret and apologize for any harm and trauma that has been created as a result of this work and recognize important items have been discarded,” said Taryn Scollard, deputy general manager of engineering in the statement.
The motion, which was brought forward by Coun. Jean Swanson, calls for the city to develop an alternative community-led process for clearing the streets using peer workers rather than police.
It also calls for the development of storage facilities and the creation of a system where people can easily retrieve items that are taken.
The motion did not go to a vote but Scollard said city staff will incorporate items from the motion into their work with the community this summer. She said they will have more information to share in the coming weeks.
Const. Steve Addison from the Vancouver Police Department said in a statement to CBC police officers will no longer accompany city workers after July 1.
Addison said the city asked officers to accompany workers due to safety concerns.
“We have long argued that this is an inappropriate use of police resources and is not a core policing service, however we temporarily obliged the request,” wrote Addison.
Meenakshi Mannoe, who works as a campaigner at Pivot Legal Society, said sweeping the streets to keep sidewalks clear and safe makes sense in theory.
In reality, however, Mannoe said the way the city implements the policy displaces people who rely on public space.
An estimated $2,410 worth of personal property was seized by sweepers over a five-day period in 2021, according to a report conducted by several organizations including Pivot Legal Society.
Through interviews with people who experienced street sweeps, they found items taken included tents, clothing, documents, identity cards, mobility devices, family heirlooms and photos.
Mannoe said these belongings are either thrown out or stored in a way that makes it difficult for people to retrieve them.
“People aren’t given notice about where their belongings are taken. They’re not given a receipt on what was taken…. What we hear from folks is that their belongings are trashed.”
A game of ‘whack-a-mole’
A city worker who conducts these sweeps once compared their job to the game ‘whack-a-mole’ because they were constantly relocating people, said Swanson.
“They move people from one place and then they go to another place. And then they have to move them from that place, etc.”
Swanson recalled a sweep she observed where a man suffering from pneumonia was asked to move his tent from Oppenheimer Park on a cold day.
“He had no place to store his tent, no way to carry it or anything … he just threw up his hands and walked off.”
As a volunteer for the Carnegie Community Action Project at the time, she knew there was no available housing for him.
Because the motion did not move forward in council on Tuesday, the city announced speakers would not be heard in Wednesday’s Standing Committee meeting.
Pivot Legal Society said in a statement more than 30 community members were signed up to speak in support of the motion at Wednesday’s meeting.