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More housing remains priority for DTES, says advocate as Vancouver offers more resources

Last Updated Apr 22, 2020 at 11:10 pm PDT

FILE - Advocates say even 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 streets. (Photo by Dustin Godfrey for NEWS 1130)
Summary

City of Vancouver announces more support for DTES, advocate stresses need for more housing

Jeremy Hunka agrees with new measures but says homeless people need space to isolate during pandemic

City is working with banks to help people open accounts, avoid in-person collection of income assistance

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — A homeless advocate says Vancouver’s latest measures to help people on the Downtown Eastside during the pandemic are a good start.

The mayor of Vancouver has said ensuring there isn’t an outbreak of COVID-19 on the Downtown Eastside is a priority, and the city has announced several measures recently, such as cleaning services, food delivery, and some temporary housing, to help stop the spread of the virus.

But Jeremy Hunka, spokesperson for United Gospel Mission, says the biggest issue right now is still a lack of space for people who are left outside.

“That has always been the case when you’re talking about homelessness, but right now, just being outside puts you at risk of another terrible disease that we need to protect people from. We need to stop the spread,” he says.

RELATED: Fraser Health Authority setting up four emergency shelters as crowded Downtown Eastside remains a concern

Hunka says there’s upwards of 7,000 people experiencing homelessness in the province, and at least 3,600 in Metro Vancouver.

And while the city has put almost 500 spaces in community centres and hotels aside for people, Hunka says there still needs to be more because it’s the best option to keep people safe.

“The major thing that we see as the primary need is to get more hotel rooms or community centre spaces up running, operating, and helping people who don’t have anywhere to go,” he says, adding there are too many people who don’t have the chance to self-isolate.

“If you’re homeless, you’re in the public all the time, which means you’re literally at risk 100 per cent of the time.”

Even so, Hunka says he agrees with much of what the city is doing, including making it easier for people living on the Downtown Eastside to access bank accounts.

“So that they can receive their cheques rather than standing in lines, and being put at risk by going out, or being closer to other people in the community, I think that’s a positive thing,” he says.

The city made that announcement Wednesday, along with other proactive measures, saying it is working with Pigeon Park Savings and Vancity to encourage bank accounts so people don’t have to stand in line and collect income assistance in cash.

After waiving some membership and signup fees, about 200 new accounts were opened last month, according to a release from the city.

Creating a community information and service point is another measure the city said it’s working on to connect people on the Downtown Eastside with the services they need. The city has already started with some overdose prevention services and says more components will be added soon.

Safe community spaces for people to wash their hands and have a place to eat was also included in new measures.

More resources for sex workers in Vancouver are also said to be on the way, which includes some cellphone donations and a possible food program.