British Columbia is looking to temporarily relocate people from tent encampments in Vancouver and Victoria to hotel and community centre accommodations to protect them from the ongoing pandemic.
At a news conference Saturday, Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth said 686 hotel and community centre accommodations in Vancouver and 324 hotel spaces in Victoria have been secured by the government to relocate more than 1,000 people.
Farnworth said the transition is supported by a public safety order under the Emergency Program Act.
The order sets May 9 as the deadline to transition people out of the encampments from Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park and Victoria’s Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue.
About 15 to 20 people will be moved into accommodations each day and the encampments will be dismantled.
“As an order, police and other compliance officials are able to enforce violations of this act,” he said.
“We know there will be challenges ahead. This situation has a lot of complicating factors beyond just being a health emergency.”
Since the pandemic was declared March 11, there have been suspected overdose deaths in Victoria and many more in Vancouver, Farnworth said.
He highlighted the recent deaths of two people in Victoria’s Topaz Park and a newborn found dead in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
“We are at a confluence of two of the most challenging health emergencies our province has ever faced, and we cannot leave our most vulnerable behind,” he said.
Vancouver city councillor Jean Swanson, who has worked in the Downtown Eastside, said people will have to move even if they don’t want to because this is a safety, and not a health, order.
“The order is about clearing the park,” she said. “In my opinion, these things always work better when they are voluntary.”
Swanson said it was good to offer housing to people in the park but there’s thousands of other homeless people who need it too.
“We desperately need to get more hotel rooms,” she said.
“We need to do that for everybody not just a handful of people.”
Mayor Kennedy Stewart welcomed the order.
“These actions will help reduce overdoses and accommodate physical distancing during our two health emergencies,” he said.
Shane Simpson, Social Development and Poverty Reduction Minister, said the encampments present an elevated risk of an outbreak of COVID-19, making it “difficult if not impossible” to follow physical distancing and important hygiene practices.
“Adding to our concerns health care workers have withdrawn services from the encampments for safety reasons,” Simpson said.
In their new accommodations, he said people will have their own living space and access to services, such as meals, laundry, washroom facilities, health-care services, addictions treatment and harm reduction, storage for personal belongings and other supports.
“We’re looking at how to accommodate the safe transfer of people’s belongings to provide the safe supply and honour the needs of friends and family to be housed together or close by.”
The government will use these sites until it can provide more permanent housing options to keep people supported beyond the pandemic, Simpson said.
“I want to acknowledge this will be welcome news for many people in the encampments, but it will also cause anxiety and hesitation for others,” he said directly addressing the people in the camps.
“While there are lots of dangers in encampments there is also a sense of community. This transition will not happen overnight. It will be done with care and compassion and will be done over a period of time.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2020.