COVID-19: City of Vancouver announces Downtown Eastside measures for banking, food and water, and information

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      This past week, activists drew attention to the plight of homeless people in the city during the COVID-19 pandemic by taking action.

      Our Homes Can’t Wait and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users held a news conference on April 18 to announce an encampment, called the “Kennedy Stewart Squat” at Lord Strathcona School to protect homeless people from the novel coronavirus.

      But Vancouver police arrested 14 individuals on April 18 and 19, which the police called a “break-in” at the elementary school. 

      In response, Mayor Kennedy Stewart issued a statement that explained he asked B.C. Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Shane Simpson to detail his plan for hotel beds and shelter spaces secured for homeless and vulnerable people. That includes over 900 spaces at 234 sites across B.C., with 367 spaces at six sites in Vancouver

      The City of Vancouver, Vancouver Coastal Health, and B.C. Housing have also secured 478 spaces in hotels and in two emergency response centres in community centres for homeless people.

      Earlier this month, the municipal. provincial, and federal governments announced measures for homeless people, including the Reaching Home program for funding accommodations, food program funding, and more.

      However, housing advocates had been calling for urgent action since March and have continued to raise concerns that not enough was being done to address numerous issues.

      This past week, the city has since listed more measures being taken for people in the Downtown Eastside. Here’s a summary of what is being done.

      Food containers and bottled water

      The City of Vancouver had launched Give a Hand Vancouver on April 2 to coordinate donations or low-cost offers of materials and services for COVID-19 response efforts.

      Give a Hand Vancouver is now asking two specific types of items that are needed for food and water distribution in the Downtown Eastside.

      The closure of numerous venues, such as coffee shops, fast-food outlets, libraries, and community centres, has made it all the more challenging for homeless people to find sources of drinking water and food.

      Food containers, such as take-out containers, disposable cutlery, and food packaging, are needed to provide free or low-cost meals to people who are facing challenges in accessing food.

      Bottled water is need for people who are isolating or who don’t have access to drinking water.

      Those who don’t have these items but would still like to help can also make a financial donation to the Vancouver Foundation’s Community Response Fund, which has raised approximately $6.7 million and supports community groups in Vancouver such as the Lookout Housing and Health Society, Hope in Shadows, Habitat for Humanity Society of Greater Vancouver, and the Dress for Success Vancouver Society.

      Meanwhile, the city is organizing safe outdoor spaces for food consumption and handwashing, including an area outside the Evelyn Saller Centre, and has secured food and cleaning support for high-risk single-room occupancy (SRO) locations.

      The city is working with partners to establish more food programs for sex workers as well.

      Cheques and banking

      The city has been working with Pigeon Park Savings and Vancity to reduce the amount of people who need to collect or cash cheques in person. After standard membership fees and ID requirements were waived to encourage bank account signups, almost 200 new accounts were opened over the past month.

      Pigeon Park Savings is also offering a five-week savings plan to allow access to income, including the provincial emergency supplement for Income Assistance recipients ($900 over three months). DTES Street Market peer managers are being redeployed to manage numbers of and distances between people in spaces, including on sidewalks, at Pigeon Park Savings and Income Assistance offices.

      Information distribution

      Vancouver Coastal Health and the City of Vancouver are opening a community information service point that began on April 22 with overdose prevention services but will expand to more services, such as real-time community information and peer work access.

      In addition, the city provided $200,000 to increase peer work and connecting non-profit organizations, which includes funding 10 sex-worker peer positions, and 62 more outreach peer workers for homeless, urban Indigenous, female, undocumented immigrant individuals, and other people who have been heavily impacted by the pandemic.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook.