An advocate for people on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside says the province and city need to streamline the process for getting people off the street, amid reports of the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the neighbourhood.
The Salvation Army confirmed a case of the novel coronavirus at its Harbour Light centre at Columbia and Cordova streets to the CBC, but has since refused to comment on the matter.
Vancouver Coastal Health has also refused to confirm the case, saying it will only issue a public notice if there is a chance unknown people are exposed to the virus.
The Harbour Light provides shelter, outreach and addiction treatment services.
Community advocate Karen Ward says whether officials confirm the case or not is a moot point.
“It’s inevitable, right?” she told Global News. “It was never a matter of if, but preparing for when.
“I understand the hesitancy on the part of the health authorities to some extent, but at the same time, just assume it’s here. Don’t panic, but take all the rational and recommended steps necessary everywhere.”
Advocates have warned of a “catastrophic” human cost should there be a major COVID-19 outbreak in the DTES, a neighbourhood where many residents suffer from underlying health issues and substance abuse problems.
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Ward said the process for getting people who need to self-isolate off the street remains unclear, and said officials need to set up a single, easy to use phone number that people at risk can use to reach out.
She said the province also needs to stop giving out social assistance cheques on a single day, which she said contributes to a “binge economy.”
“We need to give people the option of choosing when to get it, if they split it up, whatever,” she said.
On Thursday, a group of anti-poverty advocates also called on municipal and provincial officials to use emergency powers to house all of B.C.’s homeless.
Premier John Horgan responded to reports of the DTES COVID-19 case Thursday, saying the province had established a cross-ministry team including housing, social services, and addiction and mental health leadership.
“That will help them get through the next number of months so they’re not focused on trying to find a few extra dollars on the street and not engaging and interacting with a host of other people that may not be in their best interest in terms of their health or other potential mental health and addiction challenges.”
The province has loosened guidance around prescribing opioids to people with addiction issues as one way of trying to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the neighbourhood.
Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy said the province has also secured 367 news spaces in hotels and community centres for the homeless, and extended access to 200 winter shelter beds.
Makeshift shelters are now operating in Vancouver’s Roundhouse and Coal Harbour community centres, and on Wednesday, Mayor Kennedy Stewart said they are already filling up.
The city has also contracted a commercial cleaner for high-priority single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, added and added hand cleaning, bathroom and shower facilities to the DTES.
“The Downtown Eastside, we were in massive trouble down there before the COVID-19 epidemic,” said Stewart.
“Our resources at the city are stretched to the limit … we’re bleeding money and we need the fed and prov governments to step up in a number of ways.”
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