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‘It’s just not possible’: How can B.C.’s homeless self-isolate, sanitize amid coronavirus pandemic?

Click to play video 'Union Gospel Mission’s coronavirus pandemic plan' Union Gospel Mission’s coronavirus pandemic plan
The UGM is launching a pandemic plan to protect Vancouver's homeless community from COVID-19. Spokesperson Jeremy Hunka outlines what precautions are being taken. – Mar 13, 2020

There’s been a consistent message from B.C.’s health officials amid the COVID-19 pandemic: wash your hands and stay home if you’re sick.

But what do you do if you don’t have access to soap and water, and don’t have a home to stay in if you’re sick?

READ MORE: Coronavirus: B.C. urges end to large gatherings, international travel, including to U.S.

It’s a question facing British Columbia’s homeless population, already a vulnerable group, and one Oppenheimer Park homeless camp liaison Chrissy Brett says makes addressing the pandemic a problem.

“It’s just not possible,” she said of self-isolation.

“Homeless people here at Oppenheimer Park have access to very limited bathroom facilities, running water, soap and bathrooms,” she said.

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“There are two [shared] bathroom stalls currently and a third with a urinal.

Brett said even residents of the city’s Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels are forced to share bathrooms, making them potentially serious vectors for viral transmission if the pandemic worsens in Vancouver.

READ MORE: 2 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at West Vancouver care home

She said at a minimum, the city should install festival-style hand sanitation stations at Oppenheimer, and boost peer programming for bathroom access in other city parks.

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Global News has requested comment from the city on its approach to the homeless community amid the pandemic.

Jeremy Hunka, spokesperson for Vancouver’s Union Gospel Mission (UGM) said the city’s homeless population is uniquely at risk should community transmission of the coronavirus escalate.

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“They don’t have homes. If at any point anyone is asked to self-isolate, how are you going to self isolate if you don’t have a home to go to?” he asked.

The UGM unveiled its own pandemic plan on Thursday, which includes forming an emergency management team and boosting sanitation and preventive education at its facilities.

READ MORE: Trudeau self-isolating after wife Sophie develops fever, gets tested for coronavirus

The plan also looks at potential next steps should the situation worsen.

That includes things like adjusting or suspending activities, such as drop-in programming, or even switching its cafeteria meal program to a to-go format, so hundreds of people aren’t clustered together indoors.

“But we’re going to be here,” he said.

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“And we’ll expect and hope that the public continues to support us no matter what happens.”

On Wednesday, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry acknowledged concerns about how the COVID-19 outbreak could affect the city’s street population.

READ MORE: Surrey Vaisakhi parade cancelled to stop coronavirus spread

“People who are vulnerable include people with chronic diseases, people with mental health and addiction issues, people who are homeless,” said Dix.

“If you have an existing condition, your outcomes with COVID-19 are worse.”

Henry said health officials were involved in “ongoing discussions” with community groups and stakeholders to ensure there are contingency plans and making sure organizations have the information they need.

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“[So] that they’re able to know how to detect this if possible,” she said. “[So] that we’re aware that people, whether street-involved homeless or in shelters or in supportive housing, how do we connect with them and they know what to do.”

B.C. has identified 53 cases of COVID-19 to date, and seen one fatality.