Ian Bushfield: [00:00:29] 686 temporary accommodations had been acquired in Vancouver to provide shelter for people experiencing homelessness. For April 26, 2020, this is the Cambie Report and I’m Ian Bushfield.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues and the province remains in lockdown. We’re being told to stay home if we can, but for those without secure and permanent housing, the difficulty of self isolation has been magnified.
Yesterday, the province announced a new order to provide shelter for those living in encampments in Vancouver and Victoria. And I’ll dig into that in a minute, including an interview with Jane Swanson.
But first, thank you to everyone who’s helped kept the show going. Over a hundred of you are sticking with us, and we’re super grateful for that.
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Yesterday, April 25th public safety minister, Mike Farnworth, minister of social development and poverty reduction Shane Simpson and minister of mental health and addictions. Judy Darcy made a special announcement in Vancouver about the new steps they were taking to provide temporary accommodations for people living in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer park as well as Topaz Park and the Pandora Corridor in Victoria.
Oppenheimer Park, for longtime listeners will remember, has been the site of a serious tent city with about 200 people living there in camps who have no other safe accommodations to go to. These are people who struggle with shelters in some cases and just don’t have anywhere else to go.
It’s been a source of tension over a number of years and over the past months in particular with repeated calls to evict the residents there from different levels of government. And pushback from those who call for safe, secure housing for the people who live there before any moves are made
During this pandemic this has been acutely in the news as the ability to self isolate or even access simple hand washing stations is very impaired there and they need safe accommodations in which to isolate. And there have also been reports over the months of violence in the area and sexual assaults. And so there has been a long desire to find safe accommodations and move people out of there, ideally, voluntarily. I don’t think anyone chooses to be there. It’s just the least bad situation. So yesterday’s announcement in some ways was very welcome news.
They note that since March, BC Housing and local municipalities have acquired 686 separate spaces in hotel rooms and community centers in the city of Vancouver.
This includes rooms in eight hotels that are largely empty at this time because of the pandemic, and there are another 64 beds in Coal Harbor and 79 in Roundhouse community centers. These spaces will be referral only and BC Housing will be helping coordinate the transition of people from Oppenheimer park to these hotel rooms.
As a benefit, there’s also daily meals, Wi-Fi, cleaning services and staff on site to make sure people, once they are in these facilities, are taken care of. There’s going to be a full wraparound supports with health care, including mental health and addiction treatment and primary care if people need it.
And so the plan is for the ministry and BC housing to start moving people into these facilities this week, and ideally finish this all by May 9th.
On May 9th, the new ministerial order comes into effect, at which point enforcement officers can move into Oppenheimer Park and arrest anyone who’s there. And it’s this element to the plan that I think’s drawn the most criticism. As the people in the Downtown Eastside and in this park don’t have a positive relationship with local police or enforcement officers, and there’s a desire not to escalate any situations.
Hopefully things will move peacefully and there won’t be a requirement to come to that, but the fact that that’s been put in place does create some tension and uncertainty.
The other element of the uncertainty is that these are highlighted as temporary accommodations, which begs the question of what next? The province has said it’s working on a quote, comprehensive longterm plan to find permanent accommodations for every one of the people who are transitioned into these beds. And that may include temporary modular housing and other construction of affordable housing spaces. And we’ll have to see what that looks like.
The province has also said that these accommodations are in addition to about 1700 additional beds that have been secured for vulnerable people, including those experiencing homelessness across the province. These are other hotel rooms, community centers, emergency response centers across the province, and has been done in coordination with vulnerable population working group, regional health authorities, BC Housing and the cities of Vancouver and Victoria.
And beyond just this effort to find housing for the people in Oppenheimer Park, the province has said it’s been helping people in the Downtown Eastside to help isolate, working with the City of Vancouver to provide daily meals to almost 1700 households, regular deep cleaning of SROs in the Downtown Eastside, and just generally trying to help people who are in a very tough situation work through this crisis.
A couple episodes back, I talked to Karen Ward and Garth Mullins about the challenges people were facing and some of the news then that steps towards easier access to safe supply were being made. Since then, the province and federal government have announced even more relaxation of the regulations and people can access safe supply for the first time ever, which helps a lot of those people who are drug users to find the substances that they need to help them survive. So these are important steps with some important questions still remaining. And I think that’s what Jean Swanson has been trying to highlight as well as many others.
Ian Bushfield: [00:00:00] Before we get to yesterday’s announcement, what have you seen or heard about the situation for people living in Oppenheimer Park during the COVID-19 outbreak?
Jean Swanson: [00:00:08] Um, people there tell me that it’s safer for them than the alleys, that they need washrooms and hand-washing, that it’s getting crowded. That’s basically it.
Ian Bushfield: [00:00:21] So there haven’t been many supports given for people in the Park, to your knowledge?
Jean Swanson: [00:00:26] No.
Ian Bushfield: [00:00:27] So the big announcement yesterday is that the province is going to be moving the roughly 200 people there into temporary spaces in hotels and community centers with wraparound supports. What was your initial reaction to this announcement?
Jean Swanson: [00:00:40] Well, I’d like to know how many of the spaces are actual hotel rooms as opposed to shelters in community centers. I think it’s a step forward for them to be, if there’s hotel rooms and some of them are, several hundreds of them are. I think so that’s good.
I am leery about the compulsive compulsion part of it. I think most people will want to move if they are given , the vast majority of people will want to move, if given a good alternative. And I think that’s what we need to be doing is giving people an alternative.
That’s said it’s not enough. I’m a really, really worried about, other people on the streets that aren’t in Oppenheimer park and about the people in the shelters, the homeless shelters . I think there’s probably 15 or 1600 people in shelters now in Vancouver. And, um, those are congregate settings and we are seeing that’s where the COIVID outbreaks happen is in congregate settings like nursing homes and prisons
So what I would like to see, and I’ve got a motion coming to council next week, is for hotel rooms to be provided for all people that don’t have proper homes.
Ian Bushfield: [00:01:52] Right. So just to come back to that first concern you voiced about the enforcement rather than the voluntariness. This was a public safety order rather than a public health order. Why do you think it would be important that this be more voluntary? Like what’s the danger of this being a more enforced order?
Jean Swanson: [00:02:11] I think it’s really important when you’re dealing with people who are homeless to consult with them. There’s this great saying in the Downtown Eastside, nothing about us without us. And it implies, and I think it’s true that the people who you’re dealing with have good ideas for solving their own issues. If only you would let them get implemented and have input into in it. And I think that’s the best way to go.
Ian Bushfield: [00:02:37] And so are you aware of much consultation going into the announcement that was made?
Jean Swanson: [00:02:43] No
Ian Bushfield: [00:02:45] So not from the government, I know you had been lobbying for hotel rooms to be made available, like you just mentioned. The province hadn’t…
Jean Swanson: [00:02:53] I wrote an article about my party COPE has an online petition that got about I think 2,500 signatures.
Yeah, I’ve been working for it and it is because that’s what people in the Downtown Eastside want, and that’s what they’re telling me. And then there was another letter, signed by a number of groups, Poverty Reduction Coalition, Pivot, the Carnegie Action Project and the Association of Aboriginal or Indigenous friendship centers that wanted hotel rooms for everybody, plus a number of other things, and including, not breaking up existing encampments unless there’s good alternate places for people to go, which is actually a recommendation of the US Center for Disease Controls in pandemics , let people stay unless you have a good alternative.
Ian Bushfield: [00:03:40] Right. So one of the strengths of the Downtown Eastside, and it kind of comes from what you were just talking about in terms of people working together, is that sense of community. Do you know if the spaces that are trying to be offered will be able to preserve that sense of community? Are they in the same area of the city? Are you concerned that people might be essentially dislocated?
Jean Swanson: [00:04:03] The province never says where they are, so I have no idea where they are. When Shane Simpson was talking about moving people into hotels, he said every consideration would be given to moving people together with their friends. So I’m hoping they’ll do that.
Ian Bushfield: [00:04:18] So you mentioned earlier the issue of people in shelters and other situations. You’re bringing forward a motion to try and make sure there are hotel rooms for those individuals. What’s the steps? Take me through the process you see beyond just saying these people need to be housed, like what actually needs to happen?
Jean Swanson: [00:04:39] The government would have to contact hotels that are empty and work with the unions of the workers in those hotels if they have unions and set up a system where they could acquire the rooms. I mean, they could do it by negotiation. They could do it with by emergency order. I think the way the province has got got them so far is by negotiation.
I know in California, and I think it’s Motel Six has been working with the state government to house a lot of homeless people in their motels all over the state. So I think it would be good if there was some sort of arrangement. Preferably if it could be done fast without an emergency order that would be good but I mean, yesterday there were 97 new cases in BC, which is up from 29 a day before. And so I think we need to be aware that we can have outbreaks and that congregate settings like prisons and shelters are good places to have outbreaks. There have been some really bad outbreaks in the States in shelters, and we need to do it fast.
Ian Bushfield: [00:05:44] Looking beyond the outbreak, the move here takes people from living on the street in these camps and other situations to hotel rooms ideally, in some cases community centers. The province has talked about finding permanent housing after that. Are you optimistic about that? What do you think needs to happen longer-term?
Jean Swanson: [00:06:06] Well, first of all, we need to get hotel rooms for everybody that doesn’t, that doesn’t have a home. So we don’t have enough yet. And secondly, nobody should be kicked out until there’s a proper home for them. This could be done by acquiring or leasing the hotels, which will probably be empty for awhile, and it could be done by building modular housing, dignified, permanent, hopefully passive for the climate modular housing.
Couple of years ago the province gave Vancouver 600 units of modular housing, which is good, and if we kept getting 600 units, I think 600 units a year or more, we could end homelessness across the province. I mean, you’d have to have modular units and other places. I think that year that Vancouver got 600 there were 2000 in the province.
This year they only put 200 in the budget for the whole province, which is a crime in my opinion. So coming out of COVID, if there was any economic stimulus plan, one good, really, really good way to work on that would be to build housing for people who are homeless.
Ian Bushfield: [00:07:14] That sounds good to me.
What else do you think needs to happen to support people in the Downtown Eastside and people who are homeless during this crisis, beyond the steps that have been taken?
Jean Swanson: [00:07:24] Some of them I’ve tried to work on like I got a motion pass calling on a province to have vacancy control in the SRO hotels.
There’s, um, I don’t know, at least 3000 low income people still living in single room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside, and they’re being really rapidly gentrified. A new owner comes in, they often try and get rid of the tenants who are pretty vulnerable and then they do a few minor innovations and double or triple their rent.
And that’s one of the reasons why getting to 600 new modular units a couple of years ago didn’t reduce homelessness in Vancouver. It’s because we were losing so many SROs to gentrification. So stopping the loss of SRO to gentrification, which could be done if we had vacancy control, which is really cheap, just an administrative thing that would help a lot.
Another thing that would help a lot with be raising welfare and disability rates. Right now a person on welfare in Vancouver, a single person gets a $760. It’s not enough to eat and pay their rent. It’s pretty much a guarantee that if you lose your job and you don’t have EI and a good support system, you’re going to be homeless. The waiting list for social housing is about 4,000. So a welfare and disability have to go up. The province raised them $300 a month for COVID for the next three months, that should continue and be increased, in my opinion, so that people who don’t have work have.an the ability to to rent.
Ian Bushfield: [00:08:53] And is there anything else you think the city should be doing that it hasn’t been doing so far? I know a lot of the motions that get passed call on other levels of government to do things. What’s the role for Vancouver?
Jean Swanson: [00:09:04] Well, we’re working now, the city has been working actually quite well to try and get food into the SRO, food delivery to the SRO, working with VCC, they have a kitchen there, Vancouver Community College and Potluck Cafe. I’m hoping that can continue, food to the SROs, and trying to get the hand washing stations set up and get soap to them and if we could reopen some of the essential community services like Carnegie and Avalon cellar and the Gathering Place, that would be great.
I don’t think we can do that right now because of physical distancing. So the city put picnic tables, for example, in front of Avalon sellers so people can eat their takeout meals there and they’re sanitizing and re every so often. So the city is trying to do the small stuff.
The city could afford to acquire hotels, that’s why I put that in my motion, and I think it’s a priority if the province won’t do it, I think the city should do it, but it properly, it’s the, it should be the duty of the province and the feds.
Ian Bushfield: [00:10:07] All right. Is there anything else you wanted to mention before I let you go?
Jean Swanson: [00:10:11] No, that’s good. Thanks.