British Columbia

'Tensions, fears, anxieties' in DTES have homeless advocates demanding safer housing during pandemic

Premier John Horgan said news about how the province will help support homeless people would be coming later this week. For advocates, the answer is clear: safe shelter and a plan for permanent housing.

Province says more info on supports for vulnerable people coming later this week

A man sits on the sidewalk near a mural painted on a boarded-up business in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood. Homeless advocates say more safe housing is needed for homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Weekend arrests at a Vancouver school show not enough is being done to protect vulnerable British Columbians during the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates say.

Vancouver police arrested 14 people, including homeless people and their supporters, who allegedly broke into Lord Strathcona Elementary School to use it for what they called "emergency housing."

Spokespeople for the group said it is impossible for homeless people to follow orders to stay inside during the COVID emergency. 

Other advocates said Monday that more help is needed.

A group of homeless people and supporters occupied Lord Strathcona Elementary School in East Vancouver over the weekend and called for safer housing during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Matthew McFarlane/CBC News)

"Everything has changed and everything has gotten more difficult ... for people who are homeless," said Jeremy Hunka, a spokesperson for Union Gospel Mission. 

"They have so many fewer options than they had before. Tensions, fears, anxieties are all heightened."

Hunka said many aid organizations have scaled back services in the Downtown Eastside during the crisis, but more people are in need of help.

Vancouver city workers clean up on East Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside. Jeremy Hunka said self-isolation is "impossible" for homeless people in the neighbourhood. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Self-isolation is "impossible," he said. The Union Gospel Mission shelter is screening shelter users for symptoms and spacing them out, but some shelters have had to stop letting people in or limit numbers.

"The need is tremendous," Hunka said. "A lot of people are starting to wonder, if it's going to be this bad for much longer, when are added supports going to come? When is some relief going to come?

"Because they're not seeing it fast enough."

Province says updates coming

On Sunday, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said in a statement that taking care of vulnerable residents on the Downtown Eastside has been a priority.

The mayor's statement said the city has expanded shelter access and is letting people stay at certain community centres.

However, the statement also called on Shane Simpson, the minister of social development and poverty reduction, to outline a plan for more housing for homeless people.

B.C. Premier John Horgan said at a Monday news briefing more information about the province's plans to help homeless people would be coming later in the week. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

The ministry, in a statement of its own, said it is developing that plan with other ministries and health authorities.

The ministry has identified 478 spaces in hotels and community centres for vulnerable people to self-isolate and recover from COVID-19, it said.

Premier John Horgan, at a briefing Monday afternoon, said more information was coming this week.

"These issues existed prior to COVID-19 and we want to make sure we take advantage of this unique opportunity of all of us working together," Horgan said.

'We're demanding results'

The top priority, Hunka said, should be providing safe places for people to self-isolate, like hotel rooms and community centre space.

"We just need this to happen much faster and more spaces," he said, noting B.C. has about 7,000 homeless people.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs called safe housing for Downtown Eastside residents a fundamental human right — at all times, not just during a crisis.

In a statement, he noted the homeless population on the Downtown Eastside is disproportionately Indigenous and said it's "a national disgrace" that residents of the neighbourhood face extra health risks during the crisis.

"We're demanding results," Phillip said. "We need to move beyond public platitudes and statements of good intentions on the part of the City of Vancouver and the Province of British Columbia."

Phillip said he wants governments to immediately start housing homeless people and then develop a plan to house them permanently.

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca

With files from Tina Lovgreen

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