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Tents are seen at a homeless camp at Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on April 26, 2020. British Columbia announced they will offer to temporarily relocate hundreds of people from tent encampments in Vancouver and Victoria to hotelsto protect them from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia will move hundreds of residents from three homeless encampments in Vancouver and Victoria into hotels, the government says, citing increased safety concerns because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officials said the transition to hotel rooms is voluntary but that the encampments at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver, and Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue in Victoria, will be dismantled by May 9 under a public-safety order.

“These encampments present an elevated risk of an outbreak of COVID-19 in these communities,” Shane Simpson, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, said Saturday.

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“It’s becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to follow the Provincial Health Officer’s direction on physical distancing, on important hygiene practices, and quarantining for those who may be feeling any symptoms of sickness.”

The moves will affect about 300 people living at Oppenheimer Park and 360 people at Topaz Park and on Pandora Avenue. BC Housing has worked with local partners to identify eight hotels and two emergency response centres in Vancouver totalling 686 spaces, and at least five hotels totalling 324 spaces in Victoria.

The hotels will operate similar to supportive housing, with daily meals, cleaning services and staff on site 24 hours a day, Mr. Simpson said. Non-profit organizations will oversee day-to-day management. Ten physicians will help support safe-supply initiatives that provide pharmaceutical alternatives to illicit drugs, and peers will be on site.

The arrangement is by referral only and will be in place for three to six months, after which other types of housing will be explored, Mr. Simpson said.

Mike Farnworth, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor-General, emphasized that the move is being guided by a public-safety order, rather than a health order, due to complicating factors around the encampments.

“As an order under the Emergency Program Act, police and other compliance officials are able to enforce any violations of this act,” Mr. Farnworth said.

Long-standing health and safety concerns over homeless encampments have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many social services and community spaces have been shuttered or reduced, and health care workers have withdrawn their services from the encampments for safety reasons.

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The BC Coroners Service is investigating four deaths at homeless encampments in Victoria this month: two at Topaz Park and two on Pandora Avenue.

On Sunday, one day after the government’s announcement, hundreds of tents filled Oppenheimer Park. Residents picked through bags of bread and produce that had been donated by locals; members of a church handed out sandwiches, juice and face masks; piles of bike parts rested against tents. Vancouver police officers were on site discussing the order, and sanitation crews were removing garbage and debris from the perimeter of the park.

Chris Livingstone is a co-founder and board member of the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, which the province has enlisted to help move some of the park’s residents. Mr. Livingstone, who has done outreach at Oppenheimer Park daily for about a year, said Sunday that he’s happy people will be able to move indoors, but that he wished his organization could have been more involved in the planning process.

He said there are many questions still to be answered: What will happen with people’s possessions? Will they all have to be sanitized first? Will pets be permitted? What about laundry?

“It’s going to be a very tricky week, wrestling with all these kinds of issues,” Mr. Livingstone said. “It’s going to be a colossal effort and a lot of work. And then we’ll get to see what’s left.”

Robert Petrie, who has lived at Oppenheimer for about a month, said Sunday that he’s undecided on whether he would accept the offer of a hotel room.

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“I don’t want to be holed up and trapped in a hotel,” he said, adding that he could move back to the suburbs with a friend. “Some people think it’s, I don’t know, a trap or something. People think they’ll be confined. It’s a lot of us not trusting our own authorities or governments.”

Amanda Zwack lives nearby and frequents the park to see friends. She said Sunday that she’s worried the plan may not work.

“I wonder what the policing will be like at the hotels,” she said. “For people to go from the street into hotels – these people are hard to house, you know what I mean? I think it’s going to be a difficult transition. And I wouldn’t be surprised if not even a third went. They’ll just find somewhere else to tent.”

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