The B.C. government has secured agreements with a number of hotels in Victoria and Vancouver to serve as temporary, supportive housing spaces for 600 people living across three tent cities – many of whom are vulnerable to COVID-19.
The province unveiled its detailed plan on Saturday (April 25), supported under the ongoing provincial state of emergency.
“While a fear of COVID-19 sweeps through our communities, we must also remember there are those who are facing this pandemic without shelter and without the support which many of us take for granted,” Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said in a news conference in Vancouver.
“These are people with no place to isolate, no place to rest or relief from this growing global threat.”
According to BC Housing data, an estimated 360 people are currently living at two Victoria encampments: on Pandora Avenue and in Topaz Park.
Roughly 300 people continue to live at Oppenheimer Park, located on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Since March, BC Housing and the two cities have secured 686 hotel units and community centre spaces in Vancouver, as well as 324 hotel spaces in Victoria.
Under the Emergency Program Act, the province and housing groups will have until May 9 to help those living in the encampments move into the temporary housing.
In a seperate news conference Saturday, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said the new measures are “significant.”
She said the long-term goal is to make sure people can live well in the community after the pandemic, noting that the city will continue to work with the province to develop housing.
“There will be bumps along the way,” Helps said, calling this a large task. “It’s the right thing to do in a health pandemic and to make sure people’s human rights to shelter can be met.”
Opioid crisis and COVID-19 emergency overlap
Providing safe, temporary accommodations and wraparound services for people facing homelessness has been an ongoing effort by the province, said Poverty Reduction Minister Shane Simpson. Since coming into power in 2017, the Horgan government has secured 2,749 spaces across the province.
But in March, as B.C.’s top doctor declared the COVID-19 pandemic a provincial health emergency, many were reminded that this marks the second health crisis in the province – the first being the ongoing opioid crisis, which was deemed a provincial health emergency by Dr. Bonnie Henry’s predecessor, Dr. Perry Kendall.
“Now, more than ever, with the concurrent emergencies of the pandemic and the ongoing opioid crisis, it is time to implement long-term housing solutions that take care of and protect our most vulnerable people,” Simpson said.
Through this pandemic, provincial health officials have acknowledged the additional risks in contracting the contagious respiratory virus that those living on the street face due to a gap in personal medical history, potentially not being aware of COVID-19 symptoms and resources available, and most importantly the inability to self-isolate when feeling sick.
Because COVID-19 has no cure nor vaccine, it is up to a person’s immune system to fight off the illness.
“These encampments bring an elevated risk of an outbreak of COVID-19 in these communities,” Simpson said, adding that the density of tents at the three parks has made it virtually impossible to practise various health measures such as social distancing.
This puts an extra risk on the health-care workers helping assess the vulnerable population, he added.
Response in Victoria
The more than 300 spaces secured in the region will be spread across five hotels, BC Housing said. The province is continuing to negotiate leases for additional sites.
Since the encampments formed, health workers and community groups in the city have been working to provide harm reduction measures, including ample supply of the opioid-reversing antidote naloxone. Still, many are falling through the cracks.
This week, two men died at the Topaz Park encampment, police have confirmed.
Despite B.C. releasing guidelines for doctors ad nurse practitioners to provide prescriptions for pharmaceuticals to those who use drugs, COVID-19 has drastically disrupted the supply of illicit drugs from overseas, causing two consequences: more severely adulterated drugs as dealers attempt to add fillers to their supply, and an increase in the cost of these drugs.
Our Place communications direct Grant McKenzie, who’s been calling homelessness a pandemic that needs to be dealt with, is in support of Saturday’s announcement.
He said he hopes the province will look at permanent solutions to house the city’s homeless once the pandemic is over.
“There just isn’t enough shelter space or housing and we need to get people indoors,” McKenzie said. “The most important aspect is once they’re inside, they’ll have the supports to treat the roots of addiction and look at their mental health.”
Mckenzie noted there are many supportive housing projects throughout the region where neighbours have seen no issues.
Businesses may benefit from these measures as well, according to the Downtown Victoria Business Association’s executive director Jeff Bray. He said break-ins and other crime may be reduced if better housing is provided to Victoria’s homeless population.
The properties that will be housing them likely have a good business case for doing so, as well. Bray said it could be an opportunity for revenue and future renovations.
“If this can reduce crime and preserve businesses, that’s a positive thing,” Bray said.
As a co-chair of the Greater Victoria Coalition to end Homelessness, Bray said he also hopes this will be an opportunity to have an honest conversation about the inefficacies of the current model used to serve the homeless population. He said more dedicated housing facilities to work with them are needed, even after the pandemic is over.
“Now is the time maybe these facilities can be funded so they’re not back on the street after the pandemic,” Bray said.
According to the province, the temporary housing will operate similar to supportive housing, which means that services for addiction and mental health, as well as daily meals and clean water will all be provided. Staff will be onsite 24-7.
One of the facilities in Victoria will be reserved for women only. BC Housing said it will work to keep those who identify as a family together.
The responsibility of cleanup at Topaz Park and on Pandora Avenue will fall to BC Housing, Helps said.
Response in Vancouver
In Vancouver, BC Housing has secured eight hotels and two emergency response centres to serve as supportive housing spaces.
One of these hotels will be reserved for those who test positive for the virus. A floor of another hotel in the city will be reserved for women only.
Since 2016, Vancouver has seen the lions share of overdose deaths as residents in that city struggle with cost increases in a tight rental market, as well other increasing living expenses.
To help curb the excess use of personal protective equipment and ensure safety of first responders, the provincial health office has ordered that firefighters no longer assist paramedics in responding to certain colour-coded calls – sparking concern from some that those suffering an overdose won’t get the help they need in a timely manner, which could prove deadly.
In late March, Health Canada announced the approval of a safe-drug program in Vancouver as an urgent health response to the pandemic – a measure in the fight against the opioid crisis that advocates, including Henry, have called on for years.
At the time, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said the program will operate out of two community centres being repurposed as temporary housing – Roundhouse and Coal Harbour – and is expected to focus on the 20 to 30 per cent of drug users who aren’t currently connected with health-care providers or visit safe injection sites.
The moving process
With an upcoming deadline, outreach workers have already begun to connect with those living in the encampments, to understand their housing needs and where they should be placed, BC Housing said.
Each person will be given bins for their personal items and be offered storage, if needed. Professional movers, who will wear protective personal equipment, will help move each person into their space.
The province said that using hotels, motels and community centres is only an interim solution until more permanent housing options can be made available.
“BC Housing recognizes there is an urgent need and we are working in collaboration with local municipalities, health authorities and non-profit partners to develop housing options, including considering acquisitions and exploring temporary modular and permanent supportive housing.”