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DTES help can’t come fast enough, say anxious advocates

Last Updated Apr 6, 2020 at 6:32 am PDT

FILE - The Downtown Eastside resident crisis response team distributes brochures outlining how to access safer drugs. (Photo by Dustin Godfrey for NEWS 1130)

Food and shelter for the most vulnerable have been promised but little has arrived, says DTES Response

One city councillor says ‘hundreds’ of hotel rooms falls short of need

60 per cent of homeless counted report at least two health issues

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Hundreds of hotel rooms are not going to do much to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the Downtown Eastside given there are thousands living on the street, say advocates.

Last week, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart announced those rooms had been secured, but city councillor Jean Swanson, who was a homeless advocate before being elected, says the need is far greater.

Her voice is echoing what advocates and frontline workers are saying; that help cannot come soon enough.

Kathy Shimizu is working with DTES Response, a group coordinating financial and emergency response efforts between outreach workers and others on the frontline.

“We’re trying to fill gaps because we don’t know when money and supplies and resources are coming to the neighbourhood. They’re slowly rolling out, of course, it takes government time to do these things but we’re trying to be nimble and get money into the hands of frontline folks who are doing the work right now.”

She says information about the use of the Roundhouse and Coal Harbour community centres isn’t necessarily reaching everyone who needs to know they are running or who can stay in them.

She says measures to coordinate a safe-supply of drugs to addicts has been difficult to access, and understands people are working on it, but adds the needs of people in the DTES “are immediate.”

“We are trying to get money into the groups that are cooking and providing food that are still open, and the overdose prevention sites that are still functioning,” says Shimizu.

“They’re hungry right now.”

Swanson also seems out-of-the-loop on the finer details of housing plans, despite being one of the more prominent voices on council advocating for the homeless in the past.

In response to the mayor saying hundreds of hotel rooms would be enough for “the means identified,” she says there’s something critical missing from the plan, namely thousands of hotel rooms.

“I fear that ‘the needs identified’ means that the hotel rooms are for those who are sick, or waiting for test results, or for health-care workers. All of this is good, but we need hotel rooms now to ensure that people who are homeless do not get sick,” she writes in a column in The Georgia Straight.

Shimizu says providing people with hotel rooms means they have their own washrooms, a place to stay safe from the spread of COVID-19, and would protect vulnerable workers.

“We need to house everybody. There’s just no way for people to social distance and isolate themselves,” says Shimizu, who adds she still sees large groups standing together.

“People in the neighbourhood are very vulnerable because a lot of them have other health issues that make them people that would end up in the hospital, in ICU if they get this virus,” she explains.

According to the City of Vancouver’s most recent homeless count, 60 per cent of those surveyed reported two or more health concerns; an increase from 54% in 2018.

“Unsheltered survey respondents are twice as likely (16% vs 8%) to have health concerns compared to sheltered survey respondents; consistent with previous counts. Forty-four percent (44%) of survey respondents reported a medical condition or illness, 44% reported a mental health issue, and 38% reported a physical disability,” says the report.

“While addictions continue to be a significant health issue for individuals experiencing homelessness, thirty-one percent (31%) reported no addiction. Of those who reported an addiction, cigarettes were the most reported substance (38%), followed by opioids (33%).”