The City of Victoria has relocated at least 27 homeless people from city parks to hotel rooms since March 23, according to Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, as part of the city’s response to COVID-19. The city secured 35 rooms through Emergency Management B.C. Helps told a March 30 press conference, and expects to have 75 rooms secured shortly.
Helps added that B.C. health authorities have told the City that COVID-19 will hit the unsheltered population hard at some point.
“We’re buying some time right now,” Helps said.
In Vancouver, time is running out, according to advocates for the homeless on the city’s Downtown East Side (DTES), despite assurances from City Hall.
"We are securing hotel rooms, so if there is someone that's homeless, or living in a shelter, that's needing to be in isolation, they are being placed in hotel rooms," said Sadhu Johnston, City of Vancouver manager, on March 24.
The city’s task force is collaborating with Vancouver Coastal Health and BC Housing to support those experiencing homelessness during the outbreak, according to Johnston.
In an April 3 televised address, Vancouver major Kennedy Stewart said, “hundreds of hotel rooms” have been secured by BC Housing.
But there is no indication the local homeless are being escorted to hotels, said Constance Barnes, executive director of the Four Directions Trading Post, a DTES street-vendor market that was recently shutdown by the city.
“There is no plan. There is nothing. No hotels are okayed at this point,” Barnes said. “There are still a lot of people sleeping on the street and in Oppenheimer [Park].”
Vancouver city councillor Jean Swanson, a long-time advocate for the city’s poor, agreed.,
“There may be a plan but it’s not evident if you’re on the ground. My fear is that its based on letting people get sick first. We need hotel rooms ASAP, “ Swanson said.
The DTES and its Oppenheimer Park has the highest number of Vancouver’s estimated 2,200 homeless people, including approximately 640 who are sleeping on the street, based on a 2019 survey. (The 2020 homeless count was conducted March 3 and 4 and that count will be released in June.)
Barnes said many DTES residents have little information about social distancing or the spread of the coronavirus. If anything, they have even less contact with authority since the COVID-19 crisis began, she said.
“City garbage collectors will not work in the 100 block of East Hastings and police are too afraid to get out of the cars; they just yell out the window,” Barnes said.
B.C. firefighters have also been ordered to stop responding to drug overdose calls, except immediate life-threatening calls, events which are colour-coded purple. Most overdose calls are coded as red, which are less urgent.
From March 23 to 29, the there were eight overdose deaths in Vancouver, according to the Vancouver Police Department, the highest number in a single week since August 2019.
BC Housing and the city have opened a total of 143 beds at the Coal Harbour and Roundhouse community centre. Each centre has separate rooms with private bathrooms available for people that need to self-isolate.
“These two sites were available immediately and have a size, indoor layout, and proximity to Saint Paul’s Hospital that make them well-suited as emergency response centres for people experiencing homelessness,” said a BC Housing statement.
As for hotels, “BC Housing is conducting a province-wide inventory of additional locations for accommodating vulnerable populations and is in the process of finalizing agreements with facility providers. We are working with our partners to ensure these additional spaces are secured at below market rental rates,” the statement continued.
“As far as I know no homeless people have been moved to hotels,” Swanson said.
When asked April 4 how many hotels have so far been secured for Vancouver’s homeless, BC Housing senior communication advisor Matthew Borghese said, “We are still finalizing details.”
The BC Hotel Association (BCHA) estimates that 60 per cent of BC Hotels have already closed since the pandemic began, including more than 20 in Metro Vancouver. The Association expects more hotels will close in the coming weeks.
“While BC Housing is the lead agency on this file, many hotels across British Columbia are enthusiastically raising their hands to assist with the ever-changing impact of COVID-19, and the most vulnerable are included in that important work. Hotels have, for many years, stepped up when needed to assist in times of need and this crisis is no different,” said Ingrid Jarrett, president and CEO of the BCHA.
Neither BC Housing or BCHA could not name any Metro Vancouver hotels preparing to open their doors to the homeless.
“That is confidential information,”Jarrett said.