British Columbia

B.C. government, advocates spar over success of moving homeless people into temporary housing

The British Columbia government and advocates for homeless people are at odds over whether moving hundreds of people into temporary housing amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been successful.

Policies have made residents more vulnerable, leading to spike in overdoses, advocates say

Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is pictured April 23, before nearly 300 people were moved out of the park and into housing. At the same time, dozens of people from the park received prescriptions to replace illicit drugs. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The British Columbia government and advocates for homeless people are at odds over whether moving hundreds of people into temporary housing amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been successful.

Shane Simpson, minister of social development and poverty reduction, said Wednesday nearly 600 of the most vulnerable people in the province have been moved from encampments in Vancouver and Victoria into housing where other support services are available.

He said 261 people from Vancouver's Oppenheimer Park have been placed in hotels, while 308 people have moved into temporary housing from encampments at Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue in Victoria.

A small number of people have said they do not want to enter temporary housing, said Simpson, adding that the province will not force them into accommodation but they must leave those areas.

Last week, Pivot Legal Society sent a letter to the government outlining concerns about the province's approach, including increased risk of overdoses.

"Why are we doing this process at the threat of enforcement and eviction?'' asked staff lawyer Anna Cooper, who helped write the letter.

They're not demanding perfection, she said in an interview, but the province has failed to address concerns raised by residents and health professionals.

No protection under Residential Tenancy Act

Residents of temporary housing are not protected under B.C.'s Residential Tenancy Act, and some who have moved have not disclosed their substance use because they fear eviction, said Cooper.

That puts them at greater risk of overdose, she said, especially since harm-reduction services are not readily available in all of the emergency housing spaces.

"There was a developed peer network [for] responding to overdoses within the encampments,'' she added.

Pivot also asserts that the province's rapid enforcement-based approach has resulted in some residents fleeing to more isolated places, making it more difficult to get them help.

But Simpson said he's confident the process has been compassionate.

"It's been done with the ultimate consideration of the campers and of their interests and very much their desire.''

The Comfort Inn on Blanshard Street in Victoria was purchased by the provincial government to provide 65 rooms of temporary accommodation and support for people living in the Pandora Avenue corridor and Topaz Park. (Comfort Inn & Suites Victoria/Facebook)

Spike in overdoses

Fiona York, an advocate for former residents of Oppenheimer Park, said policies aimed at fighting COVID-19 and overdose deaths are butting against one another.

A ban on guests and visitors to meet physical distancing guidelines means more people are using drugs alone, when they are at greatest risk of overdosing, she said.

"We saw a spike in overdoses,'' said York, who co-ordinates the Carnegie Community Action Project in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.

"I know of one case where there was a young man [and] his mother was trying to check on him repeatedly and was not able to, and the son passed away from an overdose.''

There was a push to get people staying in Oppenheimer Park signed up for prescription alternatives, said York, but safe supply guidelines released by the province in April don't cover all the street drugs people are using.

York said the no-guest policy has also meant people who were staying with friends and partners in supportive housing have been turned out, while shelters are operating below capacity because of physical distancing.

The move has caused confusion about people's personal possessions as well, she said.

People may bring two tote bags with them into temporary housing and two more bins could be placed in storage, said York, but there was a lack of communication about how long their belongings would be stored and how people could retrieve them.

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