26 April 2020

COVID-19: Homeless to be housed in empty hotels

The B.C. government says it will temporarily move people sleeping in Oppenheimer and Topaz parks and on Pandora Avenue into hotels and shelters.


by Nick Eagland,  April 25, 2020 Vancouver Sun/The Province

The B.C. government is temporarily moving hundreds of people sleeping in Vancouver and Victoria tent encampments into hotels and shelters to protect them from the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The move announced on Saturday will provide temporary housing for people living in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park, and in Topaz Park and on Pandora Avenue in Victoria. Service agencies that work with people dealing with homelessness, addiction and mental illness will run the housing and keep the sites safe and secure.

Mike Farnworth, B.C.’s public safety minister and Solicitor General, has issued an order under the provincial state of emergency requiring people to leave the encampments by May 9. The moving starts Saturday.

The plan makes use of hotels now sitting empty because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, where the government is renting rooms for people who don’t have homes and need to self-isolate. Officials will work to keep homeless families together.

“These encampments present an elevated risk of an outbreak of COVID-19 in these communities,” said Shane Simpson, minister of social development and poverty reduction.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to follow the provincial health officer’s directions on physical distancing, on important hygiene practices and quarantining for those who may be feeling any symptoms of sickness. Adding to our concerns, health care workers have withdrawn services from the encampments for safety reasons.

“We’re taking necessary steps to support people’s transition from unsafe, dense encampments into temporary safer accommodations with space to self-isolate, access to hygiene facilities, and important wraparound health care and social services.”

Simpson said he acknowledged the plan would be welcome news for many people sleeping in the parks but cause anxiety and hesitation for others.

He stressed their health and safety was the government’s priority and said the transition would be done with care and compassion.

B.C. Housing has worked with hotel associations, private owners and municipalities to find suitable hotels and community centres, which will be rented on a temporary basis. Hotel owners have signed a lease agreement and B.C. Housing has promised to properly clean the buildings before returning them to the owners.

More hotel sites are expected to become available in “the days and weeks to come.”

In Victoria, where about 360 people are sleeping on Pandora Avenue and in Topaz park, B.C. Housing is moving people into 324 spaces at five hotels and is negotiating leases for more.

In Vancouver, where about 300 people are sleeping in Oppenheimer Park, the agency is moving people into 686 spaces at eight hotels, as well as two emergency response centres at the Coal Harbour and Roundhouse community centres.

Non-profits with experience working with “vulnerable” populations will oversee the day-to-day operation of the temporary housing, including PHS, Lookout, Community Builders and four others.
The government said the sites will be operated like supportive housing with staff on-site 24/7 to monitor people coming and going, and provide daily meals and cleaning services. There will be visitor policies and tenants need to follow self-isolation protocols.

Before moving, people from the parks will be assessed by outreach workers to match them with the best housing. Those workers and case management workers will continue to support the new tenants and they will receive addiction, mental health and primary care services, including overdose prevention services.

Judy Darcy, minister of mental health and addictions, said she recognized the stigma and judgment faced by homeless people.

“We’re here today to say we see you, we hear you and we’re taking action to support you,” she said.
“Today’s announcement is a profound commitment that we will do everything we possibly can to keep you safe in the face of two public health emergencies. But today’s announcement is also about greater hope for the future.”

Some spaces will be designated for women only, including a floor of a hotel in Vancouver and a facility in Victoria. A hotel in Vancouver has been sourced for people who test positive for COVID-19.

The province said it also working on long-term plans to secure permanent housing with supports for the people moving out of the encampments. B.C. Housing is looking at hotel acquisitions and temporary modular and permanent supportive housing.

Chrissy Brett, Oppenheimer Park tent city liaison, said people sleeping at the park were concerned after hearing details of the plan on Friday.

She said the province should be prioritizing housing for homeless people who have the most serious health risks, rather than those sleeping in the highly-visible encampments.

“We have homeless people in northern B.C., Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Nelson, Terrace, Prince George, Prince Rupert, Vanderhoof, who need just as much support, if not more, because there aren’t the supports and organizations that you find in the larger cities that have a lot of homeless people,” Brett said.

Brett said she believes the province is focusing on people who are “the most problematic to them” instead of sick and elderly people dying in alleyways and on sidewalks.

“I believe that the province has just come up with a way to again just try and erase the eyesore and a constant reminder that people have to drive by every day,” she said.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart praised the plan which he said will help reduce illicit-drug overdoses and allow for physical distancing during the province’s two public health emergencies.

“All who live in our great city deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. No one wants to live on the streets. No one wants to die of a drug overdose. But this is what is happening to too many of our neighbours,” Steward said in a news release.

“Today, thanks to the leadership of Minister Shane Simpson and the rest of his cross-ministry team in charge of the dual health emergencies in the Downtown Eastside, we are beginning to move in the right direction.”

Vancouver park commissioner Stuart Mackinnon said he was optimistic.

“What I think we’re going to see now is the transition of this park back to a community space, which is needed more than ever now,” Mackinnon said.

“People, especially in that high-density area, need a space to recreate, to get outside and have free space for themselves and we’re going to see that space returned to that community.”

original article here.

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