'Tensions, fears, anxieties' in DTES have homeless advocates demanding safer housing during pandemic
Province says more info on supports for vulnerable people coming later this week
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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With files from Tina Lovgreen