British Columbia

East Hastings Street on DTES should be closed to help social distancing among homeless, advocate says

As measures come into place to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, some say not enough is being down for the homeless population who live on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

B.C. government measures to help vulnerable people aren't enough, says community co-ordinator

A typical scene on a Downtown Eastside block of East Hastings Street in September 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

While most British Columbians are hunkered down at home to stop the transmission of the novel coronavirus, for those people living on the streets of Vancouver there are few safe places to shelter or maintain a safe distance from others.

Advocates say not enough is being done for the city's homeless population to protect them from COVID-19. 

Fiona York, co-ordinator with the Carnegie Community Action Project, is now calling on the city to close a section of East Hastings Street to traffic so there is more room for people to space themselves out. The street runs right through the epicentre of the Downtown Eastside, where much of the city's homeless population is concentrated.

"There is just nowhere for people to go," said York, adding the closure would at least thin out the crowds of people who normally cluster together on the street's sidewalks. 

East Hastings Street in downtown Vancouver, between Columbia and Carrall streets, is seen teeming with people, long before COVID-19 and concern over social distancing arose. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Services shut down

The pandemic is stressing communities around the world — but there's a special fear in the poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside. Many people in the area depend on services that have been suspended or closed due to coronavirus concerns.

They include the Union Gospel Mission, which operates housing and a program that usually distributes about 800 meals per day.

The organization has reduced or suspended non-essential services, but is still serving meals to community members — just at the door as take-away.

According to UGM, the number of meals being provided has increased to fill gaps as other organizations shut down. UGM is now serving up to 1,000 meals each day.

Karen Ward, an organizer and resident in the neighbourhood, said the community seems to be really on edge.

"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.

A woman wearing a checkered shirt and glasses stands on an urban street.
DTES advocate Karen Ward says people in the community are on edge because services they depend on in the neighbourhood have shut down due to COVID-19 concerns. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

City calls for help

Mayor Kennedy Stewart has asked for the provincial and federal government to help the city support people living on the DTES while COVID-19 is a concern.

His requests include help providing food and supplies; access to a safe drug supply for people who have to self-isolate; support for overdose prevention sites; building security; testing for frontline workers; and rent protection.

In response, the provincial government has banned evictions from B.C. Housing-funded buildings and created a working group that will focus on vulnerable populations living homeless or in precarious housing. 

York says these measures are a start, but help needs to come right now and closing a section of Hastings Street would have immediate results.

"There isn't enough being done quickly enough," she said.

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With files from The Early Edition, Rafferty Baker