Prioritize a COVID-19 Protection Plan for the Homeless

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To Health Canada, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, First Nations Health Authority, City of Vancouver, Vancouver Parks Board, and the Canadian Red Cross,

How can you self-isolate when you don't have a home? How do you wash your hands when you don't have a sink? Homeless residents and advocates are calling on government and public stakeholders to immediately and urgently provide a measured, appropriate, culturally-safe response to the COVID-19 pandemic to those who are unhoused and overlooked by current pandemic protocols. 

Over a hundred people live in a tent city in Oppenheimer Park, and many more visit daily. The last City of Vancouver Homelessness Count showed that there are over 1,200* homeless people in the Downtown Eastside, including 600* unsheltered (* an undercount). The City of Vancouver has just declared a Homelessness Emergency in the City of Vancouver.

In Oppenheimer Park, there is no soap or hand sanitizer in the washrooms — and sometimes no washrooms at all. Running water is limited. Tent city residents, and other homeless people, often rely on crowded drop-in centres, food line-ups, and shelters with shared washrooms and showers. Many are immune compromised, with chronic disease and disability, and a high percentage are seniors. The vast majority don't have phones to call 811 for testing or help. 

Existing resources are not equipped or prepared to meet pandemic-level needs and demands. Vancouver Coastal Health does not currently offer any formal services or outreach in Oppenheimer Park. Shelters and drop-ins are already overwhelmed and under-equipped to offer additional shower, laundry and washing facilities. Other DTES programs are scrambling to pandemic-proof existing services especially for those who are most at risk. 

Chrissy Brett, Oppenheimer Park tent city liaison, says, “We need to show that health needs are way more dire for some of our people that are being ignored. In the absence of coordinated governmental response, community groups are once again stepping in. We’re grateful for the support of City Councillor Jean Swanson Park Board Commissioner John Irwin and some employees of BC Housing that are engaged with our process for advocacy and support. We need to push the City, province, feds and Health Authorities to come to the table.

Chris Livingstone, founder and board member for Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction (WAHRS), says, “Budgets are being determined by April 1st — now is the time to budget for peer funding. Now is the time to place emergency health demands front and centre and ensure health and safety for our most vulnerable. We need health support workers coming in, extra washrooms, portable showers. Immediate response should be the safety of the people in the camp and on the street — that’s it.”

“All of these things can be done and have been done - it's just a matter of will,” says Scott Clarke, North West Indigenous Council President. “Remember, this is Indigenous land.”

It has never been so obvious that housing is healthcare. And that we must provide resources to protect people who are homeless from infection and contagion. And we need to prevent others from becoming homeless during a public health emergency. It’s really critical. And it’s not only a moral imperative that we do so, but it’s a public health necessity.” — Diane Yentel – President of National Low Income Housing Coalition (USA).

We acknowledge that we are on the unceded traditional territory of the Coast Salish peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Museum), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:lō and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.

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Full list of demands for homeless and unsheltered:

  • To implement an appropriate and comprehensive COVID-19 pandemic plan for people living in Oppenheimer Park and other homeless people, that is immediately resourced, culturally-safe, and actionable 
  • For decision-makers at the three levels of government to meet NOW with advocates and stakeholders
  • To immediately open the field house in Oppenheimer Park and create an emergency on-site screening and triage station
  • Ban all “street sweeps” and daily displacement of homeless people from public places. Because:
    • People have lost access to many of their daytime sheltering options - they need to be able to “shelter in place”, including in tents, pending the opening of more formal housing options.
    • Sweeps are disruptive to health and wellbeing of homeless people (lose their shelter, lose important possessions including medication), and to the service providers and outreach workers who are trying to connect with them (per Alison Eisinger – ED of Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness).
  • Provide accessible and actionable information to people who are currently living outdoors and in shelters. Information needs to be provided in routine and accessible ways. Daily newscasts are not workable.
  • To immediately offer space in emergency disaster response hotels like the 2400 Hotel and other vacancies in private hotels and motels if needed by the most vulnerable and in-need homeless people to quarantine or self-isolate. 
  • To have the province order that empty rooms in SROS like the May Wah must be rented to the homeless if needed by the most vulnerable and in-need homeless people to quarantine or self-isolate. 
  • To provide a meal and food distribution program, on-site mobile hand washing and sanitizing stations, mobile shower and laundry services, and extra washrooms to provide sanitation and minimize the need for lineups and over-crowding. 
  • To provide survival supports for sex workers so that they are not forced into more and more dire situations due to loss of business. 
  • To put on hold public hearings relating to Park Bylaws, conditional injunction and anything else relating to displacement or eviction of homeless people. 
  • To centre and prioritize cultural-safety, reconciliation in every measure, with participation from peer groups and community stakeholders to ensure reconciliation-informed planning processes.
  • To ensure that no one is evicted from any park, homeless camp, SRO or other residence, or discharged from hospital to homelessness, and ensure that drugs will be delivered for those that need to self-isolate in order to minimize any disincentive to self-isolate or quarantine.
  • To provide storage as needed for those who re-locate to safely self-isolate without having to make a choice about losing temporary home and belonging and self-isolation.
  • To provide emergency response funding increases for already-overwhelmed shelter staffing and resources in order to run showers and laundry 24 hours. 
  • To include emergency peer funding and health services for the homeless in governmental and public stakeholder budgets, many of which are being determined by April 1st of this year.
  • To ensure that washrooms and showers in Park Board facilities in parks that are populated by homeless people are kept open.  

Additional measures for SROs and the precariously housed:

  • To support cleaning in shelters and SROs and to inform and educate residents and service providers with information about what people should do and what they can expect.  
  • For the province to order landlords of private SROs to maintain hygiene facilities with professional certified janitors twice daily or provide emergency response funding for staff or peers to provide twice-daily cleaning, and the same for city- and provincially-funded washrooms in SROs, shelters and drop-in centres.
  • To provide federal, provincial and municipal support.
  • To put an eviction moratorium on SROs and a rent freeze on SROs between tenancies. Now is not the time to raise rents if someone moves out or passes away.  

In solidarity,

Scott Clark, North West Indigenous Council President

Chris LivingstoneWestern Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, founder and board member

Chrissy Brett, Oppenheimer Tent City Liaison 

Carnegie Community Action Project