VICTORIA — The COVID-19 pandemic has made a bad situation worse for the homeless and housing resources in British Columbia’s capital, where shelter spaces are scarce for those who test positive for the virus, the province’s housing minister says.

David Eby said Friday he had hoped that once tent encampments were dismantled, the Crown agency BC Housing and provincial staff would be able to find more permanent solutions for the homeless, but a surge in COVID-19 cases hasn’t made that possible.

“As the pandemic continues … we’re faced with a very real prospect, again, of not being able to provide supportive shelter for everyone who is COVID positive and living in Victoria,” he said.

Many resources, like non-profit organizations, were nearly overwhelmed as tent encampments around the region were dismantled and shelter spaces had to be found for those residents, he said. 

“While this was a critical COVID response, and that response has helped ensure we don’t have COVID ripping through outdoor encampments across the city of Victoria today, it pushed many resources to the breaking point,” Eby said.

The province, along with the local health authority and city, announced the creation of 50 new COVID-19 isolation shelter spots to help those who have contracted the virus and want to live indoors.

The new spaces will be split between 30 spots in existing shelters and 20 in pop-up locations, Eby said. They will be temporary, and there are no plans to continue operating them after the pandemic.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said the city has been working with the provincial government and Island Healthto find a solution.

The city has been put in the difficult situation of trying to keep parks open for the public as well as allowing homeless people to stay as they may be struggling with mental or other health conditions, she said.

“Sleeping in a tent in a park is neither a housing nor health solution,” Helps said.

An emergency meeting was called last weekend, Helps said, in an effort to figure out shelter options for those who are homeless and have tested positive from COVID-19.

Island Health’s chief medical health officer Dr. Richard Stanwick said the health authority estimates just 30 per cent of the homeless population has had the vaccine, compared with more than 80 per cent for the general population. 

“They’re not likely going to come to the usual sources of care, so we’re bringing the care to them,” he said, of a vaccination and testing program for the homeless. 

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said this week that health officials across the province are dealing with similar scenarios as places that were used as temporary shelters are switching back to their original purpose as hotels or motels.

“We’re increasing on-the-street vaccination and testing for people. We’re supporting staff in BC Housing and in shelters to make sure we can support people across the Downtown Eastside and in other communities where this is an issue,” she said referring to a Vancouver neighbourhood.

— By Nick Wells in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2021.

The Canadian Press