British Columbia

As services scale back, Downtown Eastside community grapples with threat of COVID-19

Many facilities that marginalized or vulnerable people rely on are being shuttered as the threat of COVID-19 transmission increases in Metro Vancouver — and there's a fear of what the virus might do to a population that already has its fair share of health issues.

Pandemic and poverty could make for a dangerous mix

Karen Ward says people are really on edge in the Downtown Eastside, as fears over COVID-19 set into her community. She's worried about the virus taking hold in the neighbourhood, where poverty and drug use have left many people with underlying health conditions and few resources. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Stan Tessman, 52, panhandles outside Vancouver's Waterfront SkyTrain station to get by, but like many jobs over the last few days, that's gone sideways as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We make enough to survive every day, but with this virus out, people aren't really helping us," Tessman said on Monday. "I noticed over the weekend, it was almost like a ghost town."

Tessman and his blind 17-year-old dog, Sugar Bear, hang out in the Downtown Eastside, where a lot of the services he relies on are located.

The loss of income from tourist and commuter spare change is taking its toll. He says he makes sure Sugar Bear gets meals but he hasn't eaten in a couple days.

"Soup lines are kind of shutting down and we're the forgotten people," said Tessman.

Many facilities that marginalized or vulnerable people rely on are being shuttered as the threat of COVID-19 community transmission increases in Metro Vancouver — and there's a fear of what the virus might do to a population that already has its fair share of health issues.

Stan Tessman, 52, holds up his blind dog Sugar Bear. He said his income from panhandling has plummeted over the last three days or so. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Tessman's friend, Karen Ward, an organizer and resident in the neighbourhood, said the community seems to be really on edge — and the day when assistance cheques are issued is still more than a week away.

"People are freaking out because they just see empty stores, they know they can't take care of themselves if they get sick — they're terrified," said Ward. "It's all about poverty."

But for Lindsey Thomas, 68, who lives in the Downtown Eastside and recently suffered a stroke, the stress Ward described hasn't set in.

"I'm not panicking too much about it yet," said Thomas, adding that he's prepared with his earthquake kit if quarantine is required.

But the pandemic is affecting his routine — the place he goes to meet friends and get coffee and pastries is shut down, and though he can watch TV at home, the lack of hockey broadcasts bothers him.

Lindsey Thomas learned on Monday that the place he visits with friends and gets coffee has closed due to COVID-19, but he's still calm about the threat of the pandemic. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Facility closures

On Monday, the City of Vancouver announced libraries, community centres and recreation facilities would be closing, though the Evelyne Saller, Carnegie and Gathering Place centres and other essential services in the Downtown Eastside would remain open.

The Union Gospel Mission, which operates housing and a program that distributes about 800 meals per day, is closing its dining room.

According to UGM spokesperson Jeremy Hunka, that's based on the latest advice from the province that gatherings of more than 50 people should be avoided.

Jeremy Hunka, UGM spokesperson, stand in the organization's dining hall in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. The hall has been closed as food service shifts to a take-away system at the door. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"We want people to be safe, and this is a really concerning time for everyone, but especially those who are on the margins and who are from those under-resourced areas, it can be really, really tough," said Hunka.

UGM has implemented a pandemic plan, which was developed in 2009 over concerns about the H1N1 outbreak. It includes increased sanitation of any touch points and surfaces in the UGM facility.

The organization will reduce or suspend non-essential services, but will keep serving meals to community members — just at the door as take-away.

Jay MacSween, UGM custodian, wipes a table clean in the organization's lobby. MacSween has been busy as UGM's pandemic plan is implemented. Enhanced cleaning is part of it. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

'I'm terrified'

The pandemic is stressing communities around the world — but there's a special fear in the poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside.

"We're not allowed to have visitors enter our buildings now," said Amanda Zwack, 46, who lives in social housing near Oppenheimer Park. "It's really scary."

Zwack, who was in the sunshine visiting friends at the park on Monday, said it was the first time she had left her apartment in six days.

"I'm terrified of being exposed to it," she said of the virus.

Amanda Zwack, 46, tries to relax at Oppenheimer Park on Monday afternoon. She said it's the first time she's left her apartment in six days, as the threat of COVID-19 has put her in 'panic mode.' (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

For Tessman, who worries about who will take care of Sugar Bear if he gets sick, the possibility of infection ravaging the Downtown Eastside community is also a major concern.

"I'm really worried, because my health isn't good. I'm worried if I get it, I might not survive," he said.

In the meantime, Tessman said those who are more fortunate could help people struggling in under-resourced communities.

"If you see somebody out on the street, I don't know, throw them a sandwich or something," he said. "Say 'hi' or whatever, I don't know. Everybody just don't panic."


Do you have more to add to this story? Email rafferty.baker@cbc.ca

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

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

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.

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