“How can you self-isolate when you don't have a home?” That’s the question that the Carnegie Community Action Centre (CCAP) is asking in light of unprecedented measures that authorities are encouraging citizens to adopt in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Homeless residents and advocates are calling on government and public stakeholders to immediately and urgently provide a measured, appropriate, culturally-safe response to the COVID-19 pandemic to those who are unhoused and overlooked by current pandemic protocols,” a March 16 CCAP release reads.
The total number of COVID-19 cases in B.C. stands at 103, according to Vancouver Coastal Health’s (VCH) latest update on the issue. Three people have died. “Currently, there are six people in acute care, five have fully recovered and all others are self-isolating at home,” VCH’s March 16 update reads.
While Vancouver has not yet seen a COVID-19 outbreak among a homeless population, the homeless are especially at risk of contracting the virus. That’s because they often lack easy access to soap and water and can’t always exercise basic precautions that the housed population takes for granted. Some homeless people also struggle with chronic-health conditions that are often the result of a hard life on the street.
Chris Livingstone, a cofounder and board member of the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS), noted that the new fiscal year begins April 1 and that means there’s still a little time to squeeze additional resources for the homeless into next year’s provincial budget.
“Now is the time to place emergency health demands front and centre and ensure health and safety for our most vulnerable,” Livingstone said quoted in CCAP’s release. “We need health support workers coming in, extra washrooms, portable showers. Immediate response should be the safety of the people in the camp and on the street—that’s it.”
The CCAP release draws special attention to the situation in the Downtown Eastside’s Openheimer Park, where a large homeless population has lived in tents for more than a year now.
“In Oppenheimer Park, there is no soap or hand sanitizer in the washrooms — and sometimes no washrooms at all. Running water is limited,” it reads. “Tent city residents, and other homeless people, often rely on crowded drop-in centres, food line-ups, and shelters with shared washrooms and showers. Many are immune compromised, with chronic disease and disability, and a high percentage are seniors.
“Shelters and drop-ins are already overwhelmed and under-equipped to offer additional shower, laundry and washing facilities,” it continues. “Other DTES [Downtown Eastside] programs are scrambling to pandemic-proof existing services especially for those who are most at risk.”
CCAP’s Oppenheimer Park liaison, Chrissy Brett, is quoted in the release stating that nonprofit agencies have received some support from government but that more is needed.
“We need to show that health needs are way more dire for some of our people that are being ignored,” she said. “In the absence of coordinated governmental response, community groups are once again stepping in....We need to push the city, province, feds [federal government] and health authorities to come to the table.”
Another B.C. group that works with homeless and under-housed people today (March 17) called for the provincial and federal governments to implement a freeze on evictions until the threat of COVID-19 has passed.
“This is sound public policy from both an economic justice and public health perspective," Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS) tenant advocate Emily Rogers said quoted in a release. “To prevent the spread of COVID-19 people must interrupt their daily living activities, including working in many cases. The government must immediately reassure thousands of British Columbians who are losing their income that they will not also be losing their home”.
The TAPS release notes that other jurisdictions, including Ontario, San Francisco, and New York, have implemented eviction prohibitions in various forms.
Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart mentioned the homeless in a March 15 release discussing the city’s response to COVID-19.
“Right now there is very little in the way of sanitation services for those living in SROs, in shelters, and those who are homeless,” Stewart said. “This poses a risk for both residents and staff.
“I have already spoken with the Federal Housing Minister, tomorrow I speak with the Deputy Prime Minister, and plan to connect with BC’s Housing Minister as quickly as possible,” Stewart continued in the March 15 release. “We need to make sure our neighbours who are under-housed or homeless are safe and to ensure no one loses their housing because of COVID 19 and how Ottawa and Victoria can support our work.”