LANGLEY, B.C.—As they hold each other in a tight embrace, sunlight reflecting off car hoods in the parking lot beams through the doorway.
It turns this moment of reunion into an almost holy-looking silhouette in the foyer of the Vineyard Church, where today people who have fallen on tough times are here to pick up food and other essentials.
Among them the couple stands, silent and motionless, each person’s arms wrapped around the other.
A few feet away stands City of Langley Mayor Val van den Broek, who volunteers at the church. She whispers that it’s the first time the twosome, who both live on the streets, have seen each other since a terrifying shooting rampage in July.
On July 25, a 28-year-old man shot four people, killing two of them, six hours before he was shot to death by the police. Authorities described the victims as “transient.” After the killings, more people who live on the streets of this Vancouver suburb began leaving, and van den Broek thinks it was out of fear.
“A lot of them have gone into the bushes because they don’t want to be found,” she says on a hot August day nearly a month later. “We really want to be able to take care of them, ’cause they’re a community on their own.”
Though police have not revealed the killer’s motive, the fear it caused for those experiencing homelessness was just the latest concussive blow to a community at the centre of increasing violence, tension and public recriminations.
It comes against the back story of twin crises — opioids and housing — reverberating through the Vancouver area and increasingly the rest of the country.
Van den Broek says those grappling with homelessness had talked about the growing danger they face.
“They were telling us before the shooting happened that they were subject to kicking and swarms and they were feeling unsafe,” she says. “You see it everywhere now. The violence is increasing. Why?”
She says many who are attacked don’t report it, and Langley RCMP further say their records of crime don’t include victims’ housing status.
Among those living on Langley’s streets is Nathan Wishart, who sleeps at a nearby camp and came into the Vineyard Church for some food and a haircut. While a hairdresser snips blond locks off his head, Wishart says he feels unwelcomed by many in the city; economic discrimination is feeding tensions, he says.
“You can’t shame people for their size, their colour, or anything about them physically. But based upon their wage, it’s completely acceptable to validate people who have lots of money,” he says. “People who don’t have money aren’t worth the time and are looked down upon.”
On Sept. 21 the province released a special report into street crime in the province titled “A Rapid Investigation into Repeat Offending and Random Stranger Violence in British Columbia.” The document provides recommendations about how B.C. can deal with prolific offenders and the recent rash of what the police have dubbed “stranger attacks” in the city. Many of those recommendations involved mental health and addiction issues.
There were more than 3,600 people in the region identified as experiencing homelessness in 2020, according to Vancouver’s most recent homeless count, conducted every three years.
Langley, one of the last suburban stops as you head east from Vancouver before you reach B.C.’s expansive wilderness, had the third highest number of homeless on the count: 209 sheltered or unsheltered people between both Langley City and Langley Township.
Even then, the report pointed out that the figures are pre-COVID and may not reflect the true numbers now, owing to the impact of the pandemic on housing and people’s finances.
The City of Langley’s director of corporate services, Darrin Leite, said the general practice is to multiply the number of people counted in the 24-hour time period of the homeless count by three or four to arrive at the “approximate number” of actual people on the streets in an area.
Government efforts to address the issue are affected by the housing crisis. Metro Vancouver has lost 36,000 private-stock rental units listing for between $750 and $1,000 a month from 2016 to 2021, according to Jill Atkey, CEO of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association. She said nationwide, 100,000 such units have been lost, according to figures from the 2021 census. (Metro Vancouver has also lost 13,000 units priced between $500 and $750 a month during that time.)
Down the highway westward from Langley, in Vancouver itself there were nearly 2,100 people counted as sheltered or unsheltered in 2020. Street disorder has become a marquee issue in the current city election, and those living outdoors have received threats.
Flyers targeting people living on the streets were recently left around the Downtown Eastside, warning that tents and a safe injection site will be burned if they don’t leave.
“Last and final promise,” reads the flyer, photos of which ran with local news stories.
A series of fires in the area, including at the Winters Hotel, a low-income housing building in which two people died, had rumours of a serial arsonist fluttering. The fires, some still under investigation, have taken low-income housing units out of the market. On Sept. 9 one of the latest blazes displaced 40 people and a beloved restaurant in Chinatown, according to local media reports.
Meanwhile, the City of Vancouver started removing tents along several blocks of Downtown Eastside sidewalk on East Hastings (long the centre of Vancouver’s drug and homelessness crises), on an order from the fire department. Two women living in the tents filed a court challenge of the order last week.
Recently, as the Vancouver police oversaw the clearing of tents, a brawl broke out between police and the public when an arrest was being made following a disturbance complaint.
Vancouver police said stranger attacks on victims were, earlier this year, reported to be occurring at an alarming rate of four a day. The attacks have had a variety of victims and perpetrators but a look at comments below news articles shows, no matter what actually happened, many assume the attacker was a drug addict and/or someone struggling with homelessness.
One man was stabbed to death by a woman that police say he didn’t know in Yaletown on July 11; a woman and her toddler were shoved to the ground in Chinatown on July 9; and on Feb. 7 a man was stabbed in the face downtown. These are just some high-profile incidents.
Canada Post ended service to a two-square-block area of the Downtown Eastside for more than a month earlier this year, citing an unsafe working environment for letter carriers.
The Sept. 21 report for the B.C. government had one outreach worker describing the area as “completely lawless.”
On Aug. 2 Shayne Ramsay, the CEO of BC Housing, a Crown corporation tasked with managing social housing, said he was retiring because of the Downtown Eastside violence and after he received violent threats for speaking in favour of a housing initiative in the city’s well-heeled Kitsilano area.
His statement announcing his resignation said he had been kept awake at night worried about the violence on the street and didn’t think he could fix the complex issues facing the organization.
“Over the past week, people who were homeless and formerly homeless were murdered, and a woman was intentionally lit on fire just a block from where I live,” he wrote. “Then, last Tuesday afternoon, after talking to the media … I was swarmed by opponents and threatened with physical violence.”
A few blocks from East Hastings, Chinatown is less vibrant than in years past. Merchants complain the situation on East Hastings has spilled into their community, making shoppers and residents uncomfortable.
On a hot summer day, one man, shirtless and wearing one shoe and with an old shirt tied around his other foot, struggles up the sidewalk, yelling intermittently. Another man, appearing dazed, walks into shops asking for food or money. The story of a purse snatching is recounted by one woman strolling with a friend.
In mid-August, a 64-year-old security guard, a favourite of Chinatown locals, was severely beaten by a stranger while walking his route in the area. The 44-year-old man charged in the assault did not show up for his court date in early September and a warrant for his arrest was issued.
Merchants interviewed by local media said the attack was an example of how far the neighbourhood has deteriorated and how out of hand street disorder has become.
Around the same time, advocates for Chinatown accused Kennedy Stewart, the mayor running for re-election, of dodging an invitation to walk through the neighbourhood to observe its condition for himself.
Kyle Krawchuk, who handles media relations for Stewart’s Forward Together Vancouver party, last week said Stewart had since arranged to walk through Chinatown with the assaulted security guard.
Krawchuk said Stewart didn’t have time to speak to the Star last week, but in a statement Stewart said the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are being “reflected in the streets.” He said the city can’t “arrest our way out of this.”
Tackling homelessness, addiction and mental illness is the path, he said, pointing to the city’s creation of 1,600 social-housing units.
In front of Keefer Street’s Sun Wah Centre later in August, another security guard stands next to an iron gate at the main entrance. People approach, he gives them a quick glance and decides whether to open the gate to the mall.
The centre’s manager, Catherine Kwan, says this screening of customers is needed now.
In recent years, the centre has had to install 52 security cameras in the 100,000-square-foot space, she says. Signs ask visitors to call if they see anything suspicious.
Since the fortification of the mall was started a couple of years ago, incidents have plummeted.
“It shows how useless the government is. It is a shame of Vancouver,” Kwan says in a windowless meeting room in the centre’s administration office. “The city has more money and resources than us, (but they) still can’t do something to minimize (it).”
Kwan says many merchants, even those here for decades, are considering getting out of Chinatown.
Landlords like it, she says, because tenants are leaving without any trouble or compensation. It makes gentrifying the area easier, she says.
“I just tell the facts.”
The soaring cost of living, COVID, the opioid crisis and other factors have contributed to the problem. But the housing issue is something experts had previously warned was coming if governments took no action.
Penny Gurstein is a professor emeritus and former director of the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia. She says past action has amounted to quick fixes; in the meantime, building more new homes is being touted as some kind of solution.
“We seem fixated on supply,” she said. “We’ve had decades of supply in Vancouver and it hasn’t really addressed the problem; it’s getting worse and more and more people are getting cut out of the housing market.”
She said the “right supply” is missing — Vancouver has been building homes that are too expensive and not the right size for its needs.
She adds that too few people are trained to be support workers to help those with addictions. Those in the field are burning out.
“It’s a confluence of all of these real crises happening and we have people permanently living on the streets,” she says, questioning how serious governments are about fixing things. She thinks the federal government needs to pick up the file.
Judy Graves, an advocate for people living on the street in Vancouver, tells the Star the city has the infrastructure in place to make headway on the challenges it faces, but hasn’t done so. She doesn’t know why.
Graves says part of the reason for tension in the city is a lack of enforcement of the law. Thefts of bicycles or from cars and storage lockers have made people more hostile, and she says it causes people to often blame any person they perceive as living on the street. (She adds that many chop shops specializing in bikes operate in the open with no repercussions.)
Assaults against people living on the streets have long been a problem in Vancouver as well, Graves adds, and she expects them to happen more often.
Back in Langley, van den Broek wants to know how it came to this.
Lately, she says, there is an increase in working poor relying on the Vineyard Church and its free store, where those in need can pick up food, clothing, diapers or other items to get by.
Near the church is one of the sites where one victim of the July 25 shootings, Steven Furness, was killed. On the morning of the shooting, markers noted evidence locations and a white tent surrounded the spot where he died.
Now, the same pavement has messages to Furness, or expressing grief at his murder. One says, “I wish it was me dead.”
Standing here, van den Broek says she feels guilt.
“You know these people and you’ve seen what they’ve been through,” she says. “I feel like more could be done all the time with mental health and drug addiction and all those kinds of things.”
Reopening Riverview Hospital, a closed mental-health facility, is one idea people often raise. Van den Broek is warm to the idea as well. Recently David Eby, the former B.C. attorney general and front-runner to replace outgoing NDP Premier John Horgan, broached “involuntary treatment” for repeated overdose sufferers.
The suggestion is controversial and Eby has seen backlash from, among others, his former employer, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
“The right to decide what is done to one’s own body is essential,” wrote the BCCLA’s Meghan McDermott in a statement Aug. 24. “Forced treatment of people who use drugs cannot be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
Among the recommendations in the report to the B.C. government in September are to create “crisis response and stabilization centres” offering walk-in mental health and substance abuse care, and to hire more probation officers to deal with repeat offenders. There are 28 recommendations in all.
Whatever paths governments take, it’s clear things aren’t working now, van den Broek says.
On the day after the shooting, the day Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted he was “horrified” by the tragedy in Langley, van den Broek tweeted at him asking for more money for housing and health services.
She never heard back.
“A phone call or something would have been nice.”
With files from The Canadian Press
Jeremy Nuttall is a Vancouver-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports