COVID-19: Vancouver, Victoria homeless camps must be emptied by early May, gov’t orders

Click to play video: 'Oppenheimer Park tent city to be removed'
Oppenheimer Park tent city to be removed
Global News has learned that after more than a year and a half, action is going to be taken to remove the Oppenheimer Park tent city. Jordan Armstrong reports – Apr 24, 2020

A B.C. government order to facilitate the moving of homeless people from Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park encampment into temporary hotel housing will also apply to two camps in Victoria, and will require the camps to be empty by early May.

Yet the transition — meant to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus within groups of people already at risk — will be a temporary one, with the goal of moving people into longer-term housing at a later date, officials are promising.

The province and BC Housing detailed their plans on Saturday to transition hundreds of people from homeless camps in both cities into more than 1,000 acquired hotel spaces in an effort to protect them from the spread of the novel coronavirus.

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The ministerial order, issued by Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth under the Emergency Program Act, will bar the entry of any additional people into Oppenheimer Park and camps in Victoria’s Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue starting Saturday.

Those three camps must be clear of existing campers by May 9, according to the order.

Violation tickets may be issued to anyone violating the order past those dates, the province said.

“In this provincial state of emergency, our priority is public safety,” Farnworth said in a statement, adding the order is also meant to address an earlier state of emergency issued due to the overdose crisis across B.C.

Click to play video: 'Vancouver Island homeless camp out in church graveyard'
Vancouver Island homeless camp out in church graveyard

Global News first reported the province was set to announce a plan to move campers out of the controversial Oppenheimer Park tent city in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside starting on Saturday and over the coming weeks.

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BC Housing estimates roughly 300 people will be moved from that camp alone, but expects the majority of campers will leave voluntarily, based on what outreach workers have heard from those campers.

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More than 680 spaces have been secured across eight hotels and two community centres in Vancouver. One hotel will be used solely for housing anyone who tests positive for COVID-19, although officials said no cases have been identified within Oppenheimer Park so far.

A floor within another hotel will be dedicated to housing women only, according to the plan.

In Victoria, 360 people have been identified as living in the Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue camps, yet only 324 spaces have been secured across five hotels. BC Housing says negotiations are underway to secure additional spaces.

One of the sites already secured in Victoria will be dedicated to women.

Click to play video: 'Victoria mayor suggests ‘seizing’ vacated hotel rooms to house B.C. homeless'
Victoria mayor suggests ‘seizing’ vacated hotel rooms to house B.C. homeless

Health officials say no COVID-19 cases have been identified within either of the Victoria homeless encampments.

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The province says professional movers have been hired to help move people’s belongings to the hotel sites, and that movers will be given masks and gloves to protect themselves from contracting the coronavirus.

Officials say self-identified families will be kept together during the moving process as much as possible.

The hotels, which will be accessed by referral only, will be staffed based on need. Residents will be given meals and access to necessary medications.

BC Housing says they expect the hotel spaces to be leased for three to six months as work is done to secure more permanent housing solutions. Staff estimate 5,000 modular and supportive housing units already under construction are set to be opened over the next 12 months.

Yet Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has said the city doesn’t have the money to build additional housing needed to fully address the homeless crisis, as municipal coffers have been stretched to their breaking point due to the pandemic.

BC Housing said it is not its intention to have people leave the temporary hotel spaces and go back to the streets, saying it is working hard to secure longer-term housing.

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Click to play video: 'City of Vancouver to use community centres to house homeless during COVID-19 crisis'
City of Vancouver to use community centres to house homeless during COVID-19 crisis

Homeless advocates have called for the securing of hotels to house vulnerable people for weeks, with some even occupying a Vancouver school to send the message to Stewart and city officials.

Victoria city council has also supported the idea, and Mayor Lisa Helps on Saturday applauded the province for coming through.

“This approach to helping our most vulnerable residents is thoughtful, prudent and ultimately will keep all of us safer during this pandemic,” she said in a statement.

Stewart and the Vancouver Park Board released their own statements Saturday voicing their support for the province’s plan.

“All who live in our great city deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” the mayor said. “No one wants to live on the streets. No one wants to die of a drug overdose. But this is what is happening to too many of our neighbours.”

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The park board, which spent months deciding on a plan to move the campers into housing before BC Housing stepped in, said it will work to restore the park back to being suitable for public use once the camp is cleared.

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