(Topaz Park homeless encampment/Victoria Buzz)

A massive effort to temporarily house unsheltered populations in Victoria and Vancouver has been announced on Saturday.

The provincial government and BC Housing are working with multiple non profit groups to address the health and safety crisis posed by 360 vulnerable people currently living on Pandora Avenue and in the Topaz Park homeless encampment.

To date, BC Housing has secured 324 shelter spaces across five hotels in Victoria for the purpose of providing rooms for unsheltered people, with 80 of them being occupied as of yesterday.

There are 360 people currently living in the Topaz Park encampment and along Pandora Avenue corridor.

See also: Victoria Police granted $52,500 by council to increase patrols around Topaz Park

Authorities will start moving people from Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue into hotel rooms in Victoria starting Saturday, April 25th. BC Housing is currently negotiating leases with four other hotel rooms in the capital city to be able to house everyone that needs sheltering.

Hotels have been identified by the province as temporary shelter options for homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic as they are currently empty in most B.C. cities due to travel restrictions.

“Every day I am inspired by the tremendous leadership the Province has shown in British Columbia,” said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps in a statement responding to these measures.

“This approach to helping our most vulnerable residents is thoughtful, prudent and ultimately will keep all of us safer during this pandemic.”

The transition of vulnerable people into hotel spaces has been ordered through the Emergency Program Act by Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, Mike Farnworth.

The order sets May 9th as the deadline to transition people out of the encampments.

This order prevents anyone from entering those encampments starting today, and requires all individuals currently residing in the encampments to vacate those locations by May 9th.

Transition and supports

Authorities are making efforts to keep self-identified families together when transitioning them into these spaces.

The province has also secured spaces for women only — including an entire facility just for women in Victoria — shelter spaces for youth, and culturally specific locations for Indigenous people after identifying specific needs.

See also: BC Coroners Service investigating two deaths at Topaz Park in Victoria

Transfer to hotel spaces will be referrals-only, meaning BC Housing, its non-profit partners, and health authorities will choose who goes to which hotel and when.

Meals and cleaning services will be provided daily, and staff on site will be providing specific supports as needed by individuals. Staff will also be monitoring people going in and out of the hotel buildings and prevent guests from entering the buildings.

Once individuals have been identified as needing a shelter space, an outreach worker will connect with them to gain an understanding of their needs, and everyone will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Each individual will be given a bin to pack their belongings in — additional storage options are available to those who need it — and professional movers (wearing Personal Protective Equipment) will help move these bins to their hotel or motel room.

The transition process and services provided to people living at these facilities over the next few months will be funded by the $40 million allocated to BC Housing in March.

Future concerns

These interim housing spaces at hotels are being rented by BC Housing for a period of three to six months.

Once that period of time is over, the province will work to acquire permanent supportive housing units to try and ensure that people do not return to homelessness after the pandemic.

To that end, BC Housing will be looking at acquiring some of the hotels and motels that are currently being leased for long term use to shelter homeless populations.

Authorities are also looking at accelerating the construction of temporary modular housing units at locations across B.C.

See also: “Pointing fingers doesn’t help”: Mayor Helps addresses blame for crime spike near Topaz Park

As for COVID-19 concerns, both Victoria and Vancouver have begun testing protocols for vulnerable populations.

According to Dr. Richard Stanwick, Chief Medical Health Officer for the Island Health region, no one at the Topaz Park encampment or on Pandora Ave has thus far tested positive for the virus.

“Our major concern right now is people bringing COVID-19 into those groups rather than the group being a primary source of transmission,” said Dr. Stanwick.

A large number of vulnerable people were displaced and forced into the streets of Victoria and Vancouver after homeless shelters had to shut down, as they did not have adequate room for people to maintain a distance of six feet from each other during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similar measures are being taken in Vancouver, where authorities are also working to secure hotels and emergency response centres to house homeless people living at Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown East Side.

BC Housing will be taking responsibility of professionally cleaning each hotel after it has housed homeless people before handing it back to owners.

Across the Vancouver Island Health region, the province has thus far acquired a total of 470 shelter spaces across Campbell River, Courtenay, Duncan, Nanaimo, Parksville, Port
Alberni, Sooke, and Victoria.