A hundred tents have been spread out over Topaz Park. (Kendra Crighton/News Staff)

Concerns rise for Greater Victoria’s homeless population during COVID-19

Delays in health measures putting local resources under pressure

Victoria’s homeless population is at a high risk for contracting COVID-19, and advocates are calling for more to be done.

According to to Victoria’s most recent point-in-time count in 2018, more than 1,500 people were without a home. This number has likely increased due to COVID-19, as more people are laid off and most shelters are closed.

As a result, hundreds of people have piled into tents along the 900-block of Pandora Avenue, while hundreds more have moved to a temporarily established campsite at Topaz Park.

To try to combat concerns over a health crisis, organizations including Island Health, BC Housing, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, BC Emergency Health Services, the Society of Living Illicit Drug Users (SOLID), the City of Victoria and the province have put measures in place to try to monitor for COVID-19 symptoms.

These measures, however, are falling short according to those working in the field. So far the only people presenting respiratory symptoms are being tested for the coronavirus, something Our Place communications director Grant McKenzie finds problematic.

ALSO READ: B.C. secures motel, hotel rooms for COVID-19 shelter space

“Without wide-range testing there’s no way to know if COVID has hit the population at this time,” he said. “It’s definitely concerning.”

Concerns are amplified, he added, by the close proximity people are living in along Pandora Avenue, many of whom are immunocompromised.

“We kind of expected things to happen three weeks ago,” McKenzie added. These kinds of measures include the installation of portable showers which were only just installed this week.

The Pandora strip was supposed to be a temporary measure, with the City initially promising another established camp in Royal Athletic Park. The City has since announced that people will instead be moved indoors to sites at hotels and local centres.

On April 14, however, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said issues with finding staff to run these facilities were contributing to the province’s delay in sending people indoors.

In the meantime, health staff have gone mobile to try to tackle the problem.

As of April 3, The Harbour Supervised injection site at 941 Pandora Ave., next door to Our Place, has closed as an overdose prevention unit and is now being used by Island Health as an acting as a triage centre for non-respiratory symptoms.

“The onsite overdose prevention site will shift to a mobile service, providing harm reduction and overdose prevention in the community,” according to Island Health.

ALSO READ: Royal Athletic Park will not be a shelter site during COVID-19 crisis

This means frontline workers are out on the strip trying to prioritize needs.

“Paramedics are definitely busy, probably busier than they were before because we’re dealing with people who are outside all the time,” McKenzie said. “They’re dealing with everything we normally deal with such as wound care and overdoses, but also with people who are scared and having panic attacks because of all the info going around.”

If someone is showing symptoms of a respiratory illness, they are sent to an off-site location for testing and put in self-isolation in a specially allocated hotel room to await test results.

The province, in partnership with the City of Victoria, has secured 160 units in hotel rooms across the city for the purpose of self-isolation for potentially ill people facing homlessness.

“These new spaces are a critical part of how we can support those who are vulnerable in our community, including those who are experiencing homelessness or living in communal locations where the virus could spread more quickly,” said Selina Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing, in an online statement. “In partnership with health authorities and local government, these new spaces are helping us mitigate the effect of this virus and support our health-care system in communities across the province.”

ALSO READ: Topaz Park camp for Victoria’s homeless desperate for volunteers

So far no one living on the Pandora strip have tested positive for COVID-19.

Similar measures are in place over at Topaz Park, where more than 200 people are presently living, though more are likely to settle in the camp area which is professionally monitored and provides access to food, showers and medical care.

“If people are showing symptoms, nurses on site do an assessment, and if they’re deemed to be COVID-19 symptoms they’ll arrange to have them tested and they isolate them,” said site manager Don Evans. “They are removed from the camp to reduce exposure risk.”

While the park is more established than the Pandora strip, it’s in dire need of volunteers to help keep everything in check.

So far, no one from the camp has received a positive result, either.

nicole.crescenzi@vicnews.com

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