COVID-19: Measures underway for Vancouver's homeless and vulnerable populations

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      From self-isolation to hand-washing, many of the safety measures recommended for protecting yourself and others from the coronavirus are not possible for homeless, marginalized, or vulnerable populations.

      As Vancouver city councillor Jean Swanson explained in a commentary on April 4 that individuals living in single-room occupancy hotels share washrooms and lack kitchens while those in shelters share spaces with dozens of other people.

      Meanwhile, Homeless in Vancouver blogger Stanley Q. Woodvine pointed out that homeless people face difficulties in finding places to wash their hands or finding washrooms due to the closure of libraries, community centres, and restaurants. 

      Homeless residents and activists had been calling for urgent action to be taken since March while organizations and networks, such as DTES Response, have risen up or responded to the health crisis.

      While not all of these issues may be completely addressed and more work remains to be done, here is a summary of what measures that municipal, provincial, and federal governments have announced over recent weeks in Vancouver.

      Shelter and self-isolation spaces

      On April 4, the federal government announced that $13.5 million would be allocated for Vancouver from the Reaching Home program, which can be used for purchasing beds or physical barriers, securing accommodations, and more.

      At a City of Vancouver news conference on March 20, general manger arts culture and community services Sandra Singh had announced that the city partnered with Vancouver Coastal Health and B.C. Housing to form a multiagency task force for a plan of action and distribution network for those living in the Downtown Eastside, including individuals who are homeless or living in shelters and single-room occupancy (SROs) locations.

      Singh had stated that if required, the city would, in an “unprecedented use”, allocate all park board community centres for these individuals to provide spaces for self-isolation and to “mitigate demand on healthcare system”.

      The B.C. government announced on April 7 that, in partnership with health authorities and municipal governments, it has secured over 900 spaces at 234 sites across the province, including at hotels, motels, and community centres.

      Non-profit societies will oversee the managements of these spaces with staff on site to provide meals and cleaning services as well as healthcare workers for any necessary medical attention.

      The spaces are designated for those who are homeless, people without spaces to self-isolate, and youth.

      Some hotels will be specifically designated for individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 where they can self-isolate while recovering.

      Meanwhile, in order to help make more available beds in hospitals, other spaces will be reserved for patients discharged from hospitals who don’t have COVID-19 and don’t require emergency care but require ongoing health care.

      While some of these facilities are already operational, other will be ready within the next few days or weeks.

      If need for more spaces become required in the near future, additional rooms have been identified for greater capacity.

      Within the Vancouver Coastal Health region, there are a total of seven sites with 382 spaces.

      That includes six sites and 367 spaces in Vancouver. That includes 64 beds at the Coal Harbour Community Centre and 79 beds at the Roundhouse Community Centre.

      In Squamish, there is one site with 15 spaces.

      In the Fraser Health region, there are three sites with 169 spaces in Surrey, including 110 beds at the North Surrey Recreation Centre, as well as one site in Hope, B.C., with 10 spaces, for a total of 179 spaces.

      Food

      The City of Vancouver stated on April 6 that its Food Security and Access team is working on programs to increase access to daily meals for vulnerable or marginalized residents, including those who are ill, are in self-isolation, or are facing diminished services.

      City and park board staff, using kitchens at Langara and Fraserview golf course club houses, will deliver daily meals and food hampers to seniors and vulnerable residents at city-operated SROs and non-market housing sites, as well as to the Downtown Eastside’s Carnegie Community Centre and the Downtown Vancouver’s Gathering Place Community Centre.

      The City of Vancouver approved two weeks of funding to deliver food to private SROs and contracts worth $100,00 each have been signed with Vancouver Community College (VCC) and Potluck Catering.

      VCC stated that it is preparing 2,000 meals (1,000 lunches and 1,000 dinners) three times per week (a total of 6,000 meals a week) for food hampers that include four hot and cold meals (menu based on available supplies), drinks, snacks, napkins, and cutlery.

      The Greater Vancouver Food Bank is being supported by the city-operated Queen Elizabeth Theatre (Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and the park board’s Mount Pleasant Community Centre (Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) for continued operations.

      Any donations can be made at the city’s Give a Hand Vancouver website.

      Overdose crisis

      Vancouver is undergoing two concurrent public health emergencies.

      In addition the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday (April 14) will mark the four-year anniversary that B.C. declared a provincial health emergency due to the overdose crisis. Since that time, over 4,700 people have died from overdoses in B.C., with 1,200 of those individuals in Vancouver.

      On April 1, the city reported a spike in overdose deaths after Vancouver police attended eight overdose-suspected deaths from March 23 to 29, which was the most in one week since August 2019 and stood in contrast to the declining overdose fatalities over the past year.

      Vancouver Coastal Health encouraged people to continue supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites.

      The B.C. government and the B.C. Centre on Substance Use updated guidelines for withdrawal management on April 8.

      Meanwhile, locations of resources, including injection sites, meals, handwashing stations, and more can be found on this map.

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