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Province to evacuate homeless encampments into hotels, community centres

Residents of Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver as well as Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue in Victoria will be moved into hotels, community centres and supportive housing in a move the province says will help stem the spread of COVID-19 and offer long-term housing solutions.
Tents are seen on a baseball diamond at a homeless camp at Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Friday December 13, 2019. Homeless people staying in close quarters at shelters, tent cities and warming centres are especially at risk for COVID-19, says a community advocate who is working to ensure hand-washing stations and clean bathrooms are available in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The province has issued an evacuation order to remove hundreds of homeless people from British Columbia’s largest tent encampments in a plan that will see them transitioned into community centres and hotels left empty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The move, announced Saturday, April 25, will include nearly 700 people living in tent encampments at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver, as well as Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue in Victoria.

In announceing the plan, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Shane Simpson said the camps represented an “elevated risk” for the transmission of COVID-19 as it’s become impossible to physically distance. 

To make matters worse, Simpson said that in recent days, health care workers have been forced to withdraw their services for safety reasons, though no cases of COVID-19 have been isolated at any of the camps, said officials. 

Public health workers, police and non-profit outreach staff will provide oversight for the move, described as temporary until more long-term solutions can be put into place.

People will begin moving out of the encampments today, and with 20 to 30 people moved daily, authorities plan to have all camps evacuated by May 9.

The removal will be carried out under the Emergency Program Act, triggered by Port Coquitlam MLA and Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth’s declaration of a provincial state of emergency. 

“This is a public safety order. Not a health order,” said Farnworth in the announcement Saturday. “As an order, police and other compliance officials are able to enforce any violations of this act.” 

Security measures are rolling out to ensure compliance and the evacuation order is not optional. A security perimeter will be established around the Oppenheimer Park encampment to prevent anyone from entering, and those choosing not to leave will be in breach of the order and subject to fines, said officials.

While the province is willing to use police to enforce the order, officials expect voluntary compliance and said they have put into place a range of supports to help vulnerable people, including meals, medical care and ongoing cleaning to ensure hygienic living spaces. Other measures include a safe and managed supply of drugs and alcohol, women-only spaces, and culturally appropriate supports for Indigenous people. The province also noted they have contracted a moving company to help bring along people's personal belongings. 

In Vancouver, a total of 686 spaces have been made available, nearly double the number of people at Oppenheimer Park. Most of the people will be moved to either one of eight hotels, though 64 beds have been made available at the Coal Harbour Community Centre and a further 79 beds at the Roundhouse Community Centre. Some of the space will be used to treat anyone coming down with COVID-19.

The announcement comes within weeks of the fourth anniversary since the province first declared a public health emergency around the opioid epidemic. Since 2016, over 5,000 people have died in B.C. as a result of an overdose, often due to a drug supply tainted with opioids like fentanyl. 

The evacuation, said Minister Simpson, is the first step in a plan to get the most vulnerable people off the street for good. 

Provincial authorities say the temporary housing measures will remain in place for three to six months, and that over the long-term, those transitioned will be moved into more permanent housing, perhaps into some of the thousands of modular units currently under construction across the province.

The province did not reveal the cost of the move, but did note it falls under the government’s $5 billion response package to manage the COVID-19 crisis.

Beyond the encampments, health authorities across the province have secured hundreds of spaces for people without a safe place to live during the pandemic. And while that includes 563 spaces in the Fraser Health region — scattered from Abbotsford to Richmond — to date, there are no facilities in the Tri-Cities.

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