British Columbia

There are few options for isolating when you have COVID but don't have a home

People living on the street and in parks in Victoria wonder how they're supposed to isolate themselves if they contract COVID-19.

Island Health says it is working to find places where people who are sick can isolate

Michael Bragg and Alysse Tompkins, campers in Stadacona Park in Victoria B.C., pack up their tent for the day. To abide by city bylaws, they'll set it up again in the evening. (Ken Mizokoshi/CBC)

Alysse Tompkins and her fiancé Michael Bragg live in a tent in a small park in a quiet Victoria neighbourhood. 

It's a refreshing change from where they were before on Pandora Avenue, where people who are homeless congregate around a shelter and support services. It was so busy there, says Tompkins, that "we breathed each other's breath, it was gross."

In the midst of a pandemic of an airborne virus, that's the opposite of what you want. But it's the reality for many experiencing homelessness across British Columbia.

While hundreds of people were moved into temporary housing earlier in the pandemic, there are still others living rough.

Tompkins and Bragg were living in their car when the impromptu tent camps of last spring were shut down and campers were offered housing — so they didn't get a spot. They have since been told by a social worker that they're on a wait-list, but they don't know when they'll get a home. 

In the spring of 2020, city-sanctioned camps were set up in places like Victoria's Topaz Park. People who were living there were eventually offered housing — but others, like Michael Bragg and Alysse Tompkins, missed the opportunity because they were staying in their cars or sleeping rough elsewhere. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

They say they have money for rent, as they're both on Employment Insurance, but it's not enough to afford housing in Victoria. 

So they camp.

In Victoria, camping in parks is only allowed between 7 p.m and 7 a.m., which means they have to pack up their tent every morning. 

It also means that if they were to contract COVID-19, they would have nowhere to isolate. That worries Tompkins. 

"[Without] giving us a place to self-isolate and what not, if someone's sick, then it risks everyone."

Danika Gambles feels the same way.

She spends much of her time in the busy 900-block of Pandora Avenue and says she had COVID symptoms last week but had to leave her tent during the day.

"There's still a lot of people unhoused, and now a lot of these people are down here sick and have no way to isolate or do anything when they have to get up and move."

Bragg and Tompkins have been living in the park for three months. They say they feel safer here than they did on Pandora Avenue, which is near the shelter and support services. (Ken Mizokoshi/CBC)

Dr. Richard Stanwick, Island Health's medical health officer, says tents are not acceptable places for people to isolate, even if they can stay in them all day. Speaking to media last week, he said the health authority is working on finding space where people who are homeless and have COVID can isolate, with roofs over their head.

"We recognize that this is an area that clearly does deserve additional attention."

In the meantime, Michael Bragg says he and Tompkins will do their best to stay safe by avoiding people who are sick, and keeping to themselves. 

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