The most unbearable moments came after dusk, when darkness swept the park and the rats would come alive.
Real Morin, 58, began living at Oppenheimer Park in East Vancouver in April after bouncing around local shelters and a single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel. It was the first time the custodial and maintenance worker had slept on the streets, and the nights were terrifying.
“As soon as nighttime comes, you’ve got to be on your guard,” Mr. Morin said in an interview. “You got people walking around with pipes, you got people shooting guns. Fireworks going off. I’ve seen tents catching fire, like, ‘Poof.’”
The rats – scurrying under and between the tents – became bolder at night.
“When it’s dark, you think you’re hallucinating. The ground is moving.”
Last Sunday, he left the park behind, stuffing his belongings into two plastic bins that movers took to a subsidized housing complex nearby.
With that move, Mr. Morin became part of an all-out effort to house hundreds of people who have been sleeping rough at encampments in Victoria and Vancouver amid a global pandemic and an overdose crisis.
The B.C. government announced on April 25 that it would move hundreds of homeless people from three encampments in Vancouver and Victoria indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic. One day earlier, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth issued an order under the Emergency Program Act that cited the camps’ risks to health and safety, and the fact that fewer supports and services are available there owing to the pandemic.
The order said people were to move from the three locations by noon on May 9, but the province extended the deadline for Victoria on Friday to May 20.
There was relief that help was being provided and anger that it took a pandemic to make the government move people indoors.
Tanya Fader, director of housing at PHS Community Services Society, which is assisting in the move, says she hopes efforts now under way will highlight the dire need for housing, including self-contained units with bathrooms to allow low-income people to keep themselves and others healthy. Much of Vancouver’s low-income housing is in SROs, which are often small and share bathrooms.
“I am hoping from this we can really push for a comprehensive plan around a national housing strategy. I think there has never been a more clear time to show how needed that is," Ms. Fader says.
As of late Thursday afternoon, 100 people from Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue in Victoria and 227 from the Oppenheimer Park area had been moved indoors.
Premier John Horgan set the plan in motion in mid-April when he called a meeting of ministers. Among topics discussed were the homeless encampments in Vancouver and Victoria.
Shane Simpson, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, said that both cities had raised concerns. In Vancouver, police reported weapons seizures, fires and gang activity at Oppenheimer; in Victoria, four people died at the two encampments in April, according to the B.C. Coroners Service. Victoria police have deemed two of those deaths non-suspicious, and all are under investigation. As well, some health care workers who had been helping in the camp withdrew their services over safety concerns, Mr. Simpson said.
“We knew we had to look at how we could implement the guidelines or directions of the health officer around distancing and hygiene and those things, and the inability to do that on the site,” Mr. Simpson recalled in an interview.
“The decision was made that I would lead with this, and look at what the options were to move people into more secure housing.”
BC Housing, the agency that oversees subsidized housing in the province, had anticipated such an action. About a month earlier, staff began discussions with local governments, health authorities and non-profit organizations, taking stock of about 3,000 spaces across the province that could be used for the homeless.
In April, the agency contacted hotel associations, then private operators, securing hundreds of spaces in at least 13 hotels, along with community centres, an arena and individual units in supportive housing.
All accommodations will include services such as laundry, meals and access to health care, including safer alternatives to illicit street drugs, officials said. Most residents are not charged any rent.
In all, the province says it expects to move about 360 people from the two Victoria encampments, and 300 from Oppenheimer Park and the surrounding area.
Going to the new accommodation is voluntary, but officials said the camps must be cleared, and fences have been erected to close sections as people leave.
The arrangement for most people is expected to last three to six months, officials said, with options such as temporary modular housing or supportive housing after that.
BC Housing chief executive officer Shayne Ramsay said the public-health emergencies of drug overdoses and COVID-19 together present a “tremendous opportunity” to turn a corner on addressing homelessness.
“I think there’s an opportunity to do that which I haven’t seen before,” he said.
There have been criticisms. Some local activists say the plan captures the most visible homeless rather than those with the greatest needs.
“The provincial plan excludes all of the homeless people sleeping on the streets or stuck in shelters of the Downtown Eastside who may have been waiting for housing for years,” a news release issued this week by community activists said.
Mr. Simpson said public-safety issues added a level of urgency to addressing the encampments.
“We needed to begin somewhere, and this was an area where we could not meet the needs of people in the camp,” he said.
There have been hiccups. One Victoria hotel, upon signing its lease with the province, evicted about two dozen long-term residents to make room for the campers.
Mr. Simpson chalked that up to a misunderstanding. BC Housing has found the original tenants alternate accommodations.
On Wednesday at Oppenheimer Park, a woman named Amanda was packing her belongings in preparation for a move to the Portland Hotel.
Amanda, who didn’t want her last name used because of personal safety concerns, said she’d been homeless for about two years and lived off and on at Oppenheimer, with the most recent stay lasting about a month.
She said she lost her rental housing over a dispute with a landlord.
At about noon, PHS outreach workers arrived to help put her clothes into bags and prepare other belongings, including a shopping cart and luggage, for the move.
The belongings would be heat-treated for bed bugs; the clothing washed and returned. The PHS workers wore masks and gloves and offered a steady stream of jokes and reassurance.
By early afternoon, Amanda was in her new home: a spotless room with a bathroom, kitchenette and a bed. With drop-in centres closed because of the pandemic, she hadn’t been able to shower as often as she wished and was looking forward to hot running water.
She looked out the window and touched the bed, tentatively, as if she expected it to bite. Some of the tension in her body seemed to soften, as she moved from chair to bed to dresser and back again.
“I’m nervous,” she said.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a place with four walls that’s a place of my own, that nobody else can mess up.”
Mr. Morin arrived at his new bachelor suite last week and looked around. He had a stove, a fridge, cupboards with tableware and cutlery. He unpacked his two plastic bins, ate a slice of a pizza a support worker had given him and crawled into bed before sunset.
“I just laid back and let everything go,” he said. “I was totally, totally exhausted. You know that sense of security? That’s what I felt: very secure, and not having to worry about what’s coming around me.”
There were no rats. The floor stayed still throughout the night.
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