Advertisement

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

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.

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.

READ MORE: Oppenheimer Park campers say province’s housing plan leaves out those in more urgent need

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: BC Housing to move homeless people out of Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park

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.

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

[ Sign up for our Health IQ newsletter for the latest coronavirus updates ]

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.

READ MORE: No known COVID-19 outbreak in Downtown Eastside, but a ‘matter of time’ before infections rise: mayor

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.

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

READ MORE: Concern for Downtown Eastside after U.S. tests find asymptomatic COVID-19 outbreaks among homeless

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.

Story continues below advertisement
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.”

Story continues below advertisement

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.