Province orders dismantling of Pandora, Topaz camps; residents moving to hotels

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has issued an evacuation order for the camps at Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue where 360 people without homes have been living during the COVID-19 outbreak

As of today, B.C. Housing expects to begin moving about 20 people a day from the camps into hotel rooms.

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The order, issued under the Emergency Program Act, also applies to Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver, and sets May 9 as the deadline to dismantle the camps and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

New campers will be prevented from moving into Topaz, Pandora and Oppenheimer sites.

Farnworth pointed to two deaths at Topaz Park this week and highlighted the fact that B.C. is dealing with an ongoing overdose crisis as well as a pandemic.

“We are at the confluence of two of the most challenging health emergencies our province has ever faced, and we cannot leave our most vulnerable behind,” he said. “The time to act is now.”

The cost of the evacuation operation was not released, but money will come from the province’s $5-billion response to the pandemic.

“These encampments present an elevated risk of an outbreak of COVID-19 in these communities,” Social Development Minister Shane Simpson told reporters.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to follow the provincial health officer’s directions on physical distancing, on important hygiene practices and quarantining for those who may be feeling any symptoms.

“Adding to our concerns, health care workers have withdrawn services from the encampments for safety reasons.”

The province has already secured 324 rooms at five hotels in Victoria and continues to negotiate with others for more spaces, the government said. Eighty of the rooms are already occupied.

Simpson said he’s confident enough space can be found without having to requisition hotel rooms.

“We’re working with hotel associations, with private hotel owners and with local government to look at hotels, to look at community centres, to look at other spaces,” he said.

“We’re very confident that we will acquire those spaces through cooperation, through lease agreements, to be able to move forward.”

Simpson said the hotel rooms will be managed by experienced non-profit housing providers with staff on site at all times of the day. People moving into hotel rooms will have “wrap-around supports” including meals, laundry, washroom facilities, health-care services, addictions treatment, storage for personal belongings and other supports.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy said health teams will be working with people as they are moved to hotels to make sure that those who need prescription medications as an alternative to toxic street drugs will be given a safe supply.

“That work has already been happening in the Downtown Eastside, it’s already been happening in Victoria,” she said. “But there will be dedicated resources that will work with the health teams, and the housing teams on the ground.”

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, who has been pushing for weeks to move people indoors, praised the province’s “wonderful and heartwarming” response.

“There will be bumps along the way,” she said. “Moving 360 people indoors in the next two weeks is a very, very big task, but we know it’s the right thing to do in a health pandemic. And it’s the right thing to do to make sure that people’s human rights to shelter can be met.”

Helps said she was particularly heartened to hear Simpson say that the provincial government will work to find permanent housing solutions and has “no intention of these people being put back on the street at the end of this process.”

“That is a significant commitment made today by the minister, and I don’t think they would have said it unless they meant it and were going to hold themselves to that,” Helps said. “So we’re going to work with them to make sure that happens.”

Simpson said he expects most people to move from the camps willingly, although he confirmed that police will assist in making sure the sites are evacuated by the deadline.

“But the police would be the first to tell you that they’re interested in making sure that this is done in a compassionate way, but in a way that is safe for people,” he said.

Simpson said the government is aware of concerns about criminal activity in and around the encampments, and will have security in place at the hotels. Victoria police have reported a spike in crime around the Topaz Park, and neighbourhood residents have been calling for the camp to be dismantled.

“We are working hard to make sure that those challenges that we’ve seen at Oppenheimer and we’ve seen in Topaz and Pandora around security and safety aren’t transferred to the hotels,” Simpson said.

“So we’re hopeful that with structure, with resources, with supports that we can turn the dial on some of that activity.”

Hardip Sahota, president of the Khalsa Diwan Society of Victoria, welcomed news that the Topaz Park camp will be closing. A number of religious and ceremonial items were stolen from the society’s temple on Topaz Avenue this month, and officials were worried about the safety of elderly people who visit the temple each day.

“Definitely it’s been stressful for us, as well as neighbours,” he said.

Speaking directly to people in the camps, Simpson acknowledged that while many will welcome government actions, others will experience anxiety.

“Our priority is your health and safety,” he said. “ We’re doing everything that we can do to make sure you land in a safe, sustainable comfortable place with the support services you need.

“I know that this may seem uncertain. And I know that while there are lots of dangers in encampments, there is also a sense of community. This transition will not happen overnight. It will be done with care and compassion, and it will be done over a period of transition.

“You will not be alone, and you will not be abandoned.”

Grant McKenzie, communications director of Our Place Society, said it was great to hear the empathetic response from the ministers, as well as the emphasis on providing supports to people as well as housing.

He said it’s positive that outreach workers and Island Health will be doing individual assessments of people before they get placed.

“When you have a population like this that really doesn’t have a lot of choice, you always have those predators that move in,” he said. “So by assessing people one on one, you will get rid of those predators, because a lot of them are housed; they’re just there trying to take advantage of this population.”

McKenzie said there was already action at the Pandora encampment today, with fencing going up to prevent new campers from arriving.

“From what I understand, they’re going to start one-on-one assessments, and I think their goal is to try and get up to 20 people per day moved,” he said.

Simpson said the government is working to house vulnerable people in other communities as well.

“The reality here in Victoria and Vancouver is these are so large and they’re at crisis proportions, and we need to address these now,” he said. “But I do want to assure those other communities we are not ignoring them, we are not forgetting them.”

As of Thursday, B.C. Housing said it had secured 58 spaces in Campbell River, 10 in Courtenay, seven in Duncan, 13 in Nanaimo, 12 in Parksville and one in Port Hardy.

In addition, 45 beds have opened at the SEAPARC Leisure Complex in Sooke.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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