April 3, 2020
With an estimated 1,500 homeless people in Victoria, increasingly worried officials are trying to find enough facilities to house them in a way that allows physical distancing.
THERE IS INCREASING URGENCY to move the jumble of tents on Pandora Avenue into the safer environments of Topaz Park and Royal Athletic Park, as health professionals and advocates watch anxiously for signs of COVID-19 spreading to Victoria’s homeless population.
So far, no members of the group, many of whom have compromised immune systems, have tested positive, but the risk is obvious. With parks regarded as a temporary solution, the overriding question is whether the virus will hold off long enough to allow indoor accommodation—where greater physical distancing is possible—to be found for hundreds of people.
Tents sprung up along the 900-block of Pandora Avenue, outside Our Place, after drop-ins closed and shelter spaces were reduced because of the need for physical distancing.
Tents on Pandora Avenue. (Photo by Ross Crockford)
Many of those camping on Pandora are using Our Place services such as washrooms, paramedic services, and meals—which are handed out at the gate in disposable containers.
The City, BC Housing, Island Health, Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness and the Dandelion Society are working together to move people initially into the specified parks, which have washrooms and running water and will allow for physical distancing.
The plan to use parks as temporary campsites has brought objections from some neighbours who worry about drug use and increased crime.
But the possibility of infection in the current crowded environments should concern everyone, not just the unhoused population, said Reverend Al Tysick, founder of the Victoria Dandelion Society. “This doesn’t just affect [this group]…We are all in this together. This epidemic does not distinguish between the rich and the poor, the drug addict and the woman in the nursing home,” Tysick said.
“Once it hits our [homeless] community it’s going to spread like wildfire. People are already sick when they move into the community. This is serious stuff. Much more serious than we have ever seen before,” he said.
It has not been possible to persuade Pandora campers of the importance of staying at a safe distance from each other, said Our Place communications director Grant McKenzie. It is difficult to explain social distancing to a group living in precarious circumstances, who are already dealing with losses from the opioid crisis, McKenzie said.
“Many people here are suffering from addiction or using opioids, so they are really just looking at their day-to-day survival. Where is my next meal coming from? Where am I sleeping tonight? They don’t have the luxury of worrying about COVID-19, which is why social distancing is very difficult,” he said.
Royal Athletic Park [see update in Comments] will be set up for 80 people with addictions or mental health problems, who are likely to need a higher level of service, but one delay is finding available front-line staff. “We are working as hard and as fast as we can,” said Mayor Lisa Helps at one of her daily briefings. “In a public health emergency, no one should be living outside. Period,” she said.
“COVID-19 will hit the unsheltered population at some time,” Helps said, echoing the concerns of Chief Medical Officer Richard Stanwick who has emphasized that homeless people must have the opportunity to meet social distancing requirements and that, if they are displaying symptoms, they must be able to isolate themselves.
A federal grant of more than $1.3-million will be added to programs to address homelessness; and a search is on to find indoor alternatives to parks.
As of April 3, 102 homeless, who are healthy and do not require a high level of support, had been moved into motel rooms. Others, who were previously camping in Topaz Park, will remain there until indoor accommodation can be found.
Ideally, that search should include premises in neighbouring municipalities as the downtown core attracts people from all over the region and several of Victoria’s facilities have already been rejected as unsuitable, said Helps. She acknowledged that 80 spaces at Royal Athletic Park will not be sufficient to meet the needs.
Meanwhile, there seem to be more tents on Pandora than ever. And the numbers of facilities in motels and parks so far arranged do not add up to anywhere near the 1,525 homeless people found in the 2018 count in Greater Victoria.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith