Jean Swanson: House people who are homeless in hotels now

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      You can’t stay home if you don’t have a home. You can’t self-isolate if you live in a shelter with dozens of other folks on mats beside you. 

      You can’t stay safe from COVID19 if you live in a single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel with no kitchen and a shared bathroom that probably doesn’t have any soap or paper towels in it.

      That’s true for more than 10,000 B.C. residents every day in the midst of this life-threatening pandemic. They can’t protect themselves from getting exposed because they don’t have a home at all, or the home they have is not safe.

      If they do get sick, through no fault of their own, they will be contagious to many other people. If they do get sick, these are the most apt to need intensive care, putting even more stress on our entire health-care system.

      Governments in Toronto, Saskatchewan, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and London, England recognized that brutal reality weeks ago and started securing hotel rooms to house homeless people. 

      It’s good social policy that could save the government money. Modelling by University College London found that placing vulnerable groups in hotels was significantly more cost-effective than treating individuals in hospital.

      Bans on travel, closing our border with the U.S., and orders to close all but nonessential businesses have devastated our tourism industry. Vancouver hotels are empty and their laid-off workers desperately need jobs.

      It’s a travesty that these rooms are not being used to help put a stop to the spread of the pandemic.  

      Vancouver’s 2019 homeless count revealed that 44 percent of the homeless people surveyed said that they had a medical condition like asthma or diabetes. 

      Thirty-one percent had a serious enough disability to qualify for disability benefits. And 24 percent are over 55. 

      Who is most likely to develop severe, life-threatening symptoms and most apt to die from COVID-19? People over 55 and people with underlying medical conditions.

      For weeks, I have been hearing rumours that the provincial government was getting hotels for vulnerable people. But it wasn’t until Friday (April 3) that Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart announced that working with B.C. Housing and Vancouver Coast Health, hundreds of hotel rooms had been secured—“enough for the needs identified”.

      How could hundreds of hotel rooms be enough when Vancouver has more than 2,000 homeless people?  

      I fear that “the needs identified” means that the hotel rooms are for those who are sick, or waiting for test results, or for health-care workers. All of this is good, but we need hotel rooms now to ensure that people who are homeless do not get sick.

      Most hotel rooms have private bathrooms, providing a safe, warm, and comfortable space where people could safely isolate to prevent themselves from getting sick. Most of the rooms probably have phones, TVs, and Wi-Fi, which could encourage social connection while in isolation.

      The province could work with the hotel workers union, Unite Here Local 40. The union's other affiliates are partnering with governments all over North America to repurpose rooms to fight the virus.

      It's critical that proper safety equipment and protocols be put in place. If workers feel safe, many will step up to the plate to help maintain the hotel and prepare and deliver food. 

      The workers tell me they would like to do their civic duty, housing and feeding people in time of need.  

      With empty hotels, willing workers, and homeless people in need, we have a win-win-win situation waiting to happen if only the province will put all  the pieces together—and do it fast. 

      “Hundreds of hotel rooms” must be just a first step.

      At the end of this, when the tourism industry starts to return to normal, the provincial and federal governments could, as part of a reconstruction effort, employ people to construct permanent, dignified modular (because they are fast) housing for the homeless who were housed in hotels.

      They could gradually be moved from temporary isolation in hotels to nice permanent homes. 

      We could end homelessness. If we can change everything for one kind of emergency, why not do it for another?

      Jean Swanson is a Coalition of Progressive Electors city councillor in Vancouver. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.