Province mulls Victoria’s call for hotels for the homeless

An aerial view of downtown Victoria and Victoria Harbour | Photo: Adrian Lam, Times Colonist

The B.C. government has yet to say whether it will heed calls by Victoria city council to requisition hotel and motel rooms for people without homes during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Asked about the proposal Monday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province will have more to say in the coming days about its plans to provide housing to those who need it, as well as supports for those dealing with addictions issues.

“All of government has been looking at how do we address these issues across the province in a systematic, planned, co-ordinated way,” she said. “And that’s what I’ve been pushing.”

Premier John Horgan told reporters that he has asked Social Development Minister Shane Simpson to tackle the challenges of physical distancing among people who are homeless, and expects the minister will have more to say by the end of the week.

Henry acknowledged that the restrictions put in place as a result of the pandemic have compounded the province’s ongoing drug-overdose crisis, particularly for those without a place to stay.

“We have two emergencies that we’re dealing with,” she said.

In Victoria, hundreds of people are living in tents on Pandora Avenue or at Topaz Park as a result of shelters either closing or reducing the number of spaces in order to prevent the virus from spreading.

The B.C. Coroners Service confirmed Monday that a man in his late 30s died at the Pandora encampment last week. The investigation is in its early stages and a cause of death was not released.

The province is under growing pressure to deal with the situation. Medical professionals, non-profit groups and local politicians worry the virus will sweep through the tent cities and devastate an already vulnerable population, while residents of surrounding neighbourhoods say they’re living in fear due to a rise in criminal activity near the camps.

Last week, Victoria council urged the province to use its emergency powers to requisition hotel and motel rooms for people without homes, properly compensate the hotel owners, and put supports in place to keep people and property safe.

Helps said Monday that she has yet to hear back from the province. “But I do have confidence that the provincial government is now turning its mind to this,” she said. “They’ve done such a great job in terms of the general population. With the pressure mounting on all of us, hopefully we’ll see action soon.”

Rabbi Meir Kaplan of the Chabad Jewish Centre near Topaz Park called on the province and city to dismantle the tent city, saying the neighbourhood is living in fear due to a rise in criminal activity.

“We have security cameras in our building and looked at them and, basically, every single night in the last few weeks, people are trying to break into our building,” he said.

“I have a neighbour down the street here, it’s an older couple, and they basically don’t sleep at night because of anxiety.”

Victoria police reported last week that there has been steady increase in calls for service to the Topaz Park area.

There were 70 calls to police between April 5 and 11, more than twice the 31 calls received the week of March 15 to 21.

In one case, a man was arrested April 9 after several religious and ceremonial items were taken from the Sikh temple at 1210 Topaz Ave.

Kaplan contends that the neighbourhood soundly rejected the idea of a tent city at Topaz Park in 2015, and now the city is using the COVID-19 outbreak as an excuse to execute its original plan.

But Helps called that an “incredibly cynical” view and said nobody wants to see a tent city anywhere in Canada, let alone Victoria. She said city staff have been working with B.C. Housing and Island Health to move people indoors as soon as possible.

“Topaz is temporary, and as soon as resources can be found to move people inside, they will,” she said. “I don’t think any mayor in Canada will say: ‘I need an excuse to set up a tent city.’ I think that’s preposterous.”

The province’s joint information centre said in a statement Monday that the government is working to secure a site for an emergency response centre in Victoria. B.C. Housing has already secured 260 room across four sites in Victoria and continues to negotiate with motels and hotels for more spaces, the statement said.

Times Colonist