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Speculation swirls as province prepares to announce support for B.C.'s homeless

Last Updated Apr 25, 2020 at 8:08 am PDT

FILE - A mural urging people to do their part to flatten the COVID-19 curve is painted in the Downtown Eastside COVID-19 Downtown Eastside. (Courtesy Trey Helton, Overdose Prevention Society)
Summary

Provincial ministers are set to announce supports for B.C.'s homeless Saturday morning

Advocates and officials want to see adequate housing, better protection for workers

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Rumours and questions are swirling on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as the province prepares to make an announcement about supporting people in B.C. experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of Vancouver’s 2,223 homeless people seek shelter and services in the neighbourhood, and concerns over the potential devastation an outbreak would cause among an already vulnerable population have been repeatedly raised by advocates and officials.

The province’s ministers of public safety and mental health and addictions are set to speak alongside Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Shane Simpson Saturday at 10:00 a.m.

The province announced a cross-ministerial team last week, headed up by Simpson, aimed at finding housing solutions for the thousands of people in B.C. last week.

According to BC Housing, 367 beds have been offered so far at six different sites. That includes 64 beds at Coal Harbour Community Centre and 79 beds at the Roundhouse Community Centre.

Vancouver city councillor Pete Fry says he is optimistic the announcement will build on the city’s efforts to increase sanitation, services, and shelter for residents in the neighbourhood. 

“We are in a critical situation in the Downtown Eastside,” he says.

“We’re desperate for solutions. So, I’m hoping whatever the province is announcing is actually going to be a helpful solution to addressing the real, critical needs in the Downtown Eastside. As a city, we can’t do it alone.”

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Crowded conditions on the streets, in SROs and shelters mean that social distancing and self-isolation —  the two things public health officials say are crucial to stemming the spread of the virus — are difficult or impossible.

Coun. Fry says an outbreak among dozens of workers at a poultry processing plant in the neighbourhood “put a stronger timeline on making sure that folks are safe.”

The Vancouver District Labour Council wants to make sure any plans announced by the province consider how workers in the neighbourhood will be protected, in addition to making sure people are given adequate housing as soon as possible.

“If the residents aren’t safe the workers aren’t going to be safe and if the workers aren’t safe the residents aren’t,” explains President Stephen von Sychowski.

“Everyone’s working in close quarters in a lot of these situations in a vulnerable community we have to make sure everyone’s taken care of in the situation and has what they need to get through this without having an outbreak in the DTES.”

He says high turnover among social service workers has led to a persistent staffing shortage, and safety concerns are adding stress to an overworked and underpaid workforce.

“Folks don’t feel safe, and really the compensation for many of these jobs isn’t what it should be given the type of work it is and some of the dangers associated with it. That staffing shortage needs to be addressed so services can be provided properly, and some of the pressure on these workers can be lifted, and residents can be taken care of. One way to do that is to make sure people are paid appropriately have benefits and feel safe on the job.”

Union representatives met with provincial ministers Friday night.

“Hopefully that feedback is taken into consideration in whatever plan is put in place,” von Sychowski says.

Meantime, one advocate is concerned that the province will use the COVID-19 state of emergency as an excuse to clear the encampment at Oppenheimer Park.

“I think they’ve showed in the last year that they’re determined to evict the park and they’ve also shown that that determination hasn’t been matched with a plan to provide an actual amount of housing that would be enough,” says Nathan Crompton.

“They have shown that their priority is the eviction, and they’re quite happy to dispense folks far and wide.”