The streets of Vancouver have become eerily empty in recent days, as more and more people follow social and physical distancing directions.
But in the Downtown Eastside, the streets are as packed as ever — and advocates for the homeless and other vulnerable groups are worried.
“They are already vulnerable. Their immune system is beaten and battered, and often times they have a medical condition or a pre-existing health condition that’s very serious,” said Union Gospel Mission (UGM) spokesperson Jeremy Hunka.
Hunka said the UGM has implemented its own social distancing policies, but that getting the message out across the Downtown Eastside, where many people are already in survival mode or facing drug or mental health issues, will be a challenge.
He said it’s still not clear where the homeless are meant to go if they begin to show symptoms, if they need to self-isolate or begin to require medical attention.
The City of Vancouver moved last week to shut down the Four Directions Trading Post market in the DTES over coronavirus concerns, and has deployed 11 hand sanitizing stations in the neighbourhood.
It says it is also looking at the possibility of using community centres to isolate people should the virus turn up in the street population.
On Saturday, the province said it was working on supports for the homeless, including efforts to keep shelters that may normally close in the spring open.
It said it will also provide shelter operators, supportive housing buildings and single room occupancy (SRO) hotels with funding to cover COVID-19-related costs, including cleaning and supplies.
On Monday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry acknowledged the challenge of protecting DTES residents.
“This is where people are living right now. And unfortunately for many, that means on the street, in a park,” said Henry, adding that there was “quite a lot of work” underway between the city, Vancouver Coastal Health and other agencies working in the neighbourhood.
“There are measures that are in place that may not be overtly visible. There’s also some plans to ensure that if people do start getting sick in that community, that we’re able to to support them and care for them safely.”
Hunka applauded the provincial plans announced Saturday, which he called far-reaching, but said he’s worried about the short-term, adding that he’d seen no visible increase in services or boots on the ground.
“We need to know what the plan is, an outline, and really specifically, a timeline,” he said.
“Otherwise the human consequences will be catastrophic.”