Today I asked Minister of Health Adrian Dix and Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Housing David Eby why health authorities were rolling back support for unhoused people when the data pointed to a rising 4th wave. I also asked when this government plans to prioritize their needs.
Across BC, unhoused people are getting sick and have nowhere to go. In Kelowna, 130 cases in the unhoused population weren’t even recorded on Interior Health’s list of public exposures – because it wasn’t a “risk to the public.” The responses from both Adrian Dix and David Eby were lacking. The Minister of Health said government is still acting as if COVID-19 was a pandemic despite memos from Vancouver Island Health stating otherwise. Meanwhile David Eby refuted the facts of our question despite being based on the Island Health memo. He also refused to give any timelines on when the unhoused populations outside of Victoria can expect support from this government.
S. Furstenau: It’s astonishing to hear this conversation back and forth between the two parties — to be discussing climate change and to hear this government talk about their climate change plan and ignore the fact that they doubled the public subsidies to oil and gas that the previous government had to $1.3 billion a year.
This government is funding climate change. It is funding these outcomes with public money.
This province is facing overlapping crises. We had the heat dome. We had the wildfires. And we are now in the fourth wave of this pandemic. One of the communities, the hardest hit, is the unhoused.
As this government touted an early and premature recovery from COVID at the beginning of the summer, supportive housing options to isolate safely were quietly rolled back. A September memo in Vancouver Island Health referred to us being in the endemic phase of COVID and stated that the official response to unhoused people with COVID-19 is to give them a snack, a mask and education. In my riding, that meant a 66-year-old man with COVID and nowhere to go and COPD and a fractured hip was given the advice to sleep in his vehicle.
Now the crisis has reignited after hundreds of cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in Victoria’s unhoused population last month. The government hastily promised 50 new beds for people to use to isolate and recover, but the number of beds is inconsistent with the number of cases, and people don’t have a month to wait. They’re sick. It’s getting colder, and the virus is spreading.
My question is for the Minister of Health. All of the data this summer showed that the pandemic wasn’t over. Why, in September, were health authorities rolling back supports for unhoused people when the data pointed very clearly to a rising fourth wave?
Hon. A. Dix: Some of that question is for the Minister of Housing, so he may respond on the second supplementary to the member’s question. But what I would say is this. We are in the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s the position of every health authority, and that’s my position.
That’s why, in our step-by-step reopening plan, we are still at step 3. It’s why we did more tests in the month of September than at any time. Our focus, from the beginning of this pandemic, has been to focus on those who are most vulnerable in every way, whether in long-term care or in assisted living or the most vulnerable in the community.
I am very proud of the work of health authorities in communities around the province — that we started in congregate living circumstances to vaccinate people and continued that effort while we provided unprecedented housing options and isolation options for people. There are challenges now because, as the member will know, some of the facilities where we did some of that cohorting of people who were sick are now being used for guests and visitors and so on. Nonetheless, it is an unprecedented, continuing effort to support, to vaccinate our most vulnerable people.
I think the fact that we did it early and the fact that that effort created, maybe, a false impression that we were ahead in those areas of everywhere else…. The Downtown Eastside, for example, of Vancouver, has over 80 percent of people vaccinated, about 82 percent. Nonetheless, that is below other community health service areas in Vancouver. We started there soon, but they were overtaken when it was offered to everybody.
The efforts to vaccinate, the efforts to support and the efforts to house continue unabated and will continue unabated as we deal with this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. Speaker: The Leader of the Third Party on a supplemental question.
S. Furstenau: Thank you to the minister for his response. However, there is an online memo in Island Health that clearly states that we’re in the endemic phase and that there won’t be supports provided to unhoused people — September 21.
COVID isn’t just impacting unhoused people in Victoria. Across the province, unhoused people are getting sick and have nowhere to go. In Kelowna, 130 cases in the unhoused population weren’t even recorded on Interior Health’s list of public exposure because it wasn’t “a risk to the public.” But unhoused British Columbians are the public, and they are at risk.
These are people with lives and loved ones, people who deserve the supports they need to keep themselves and their communities healthy. The similarities between this and the lack of action on the drug poisoning crisis are striking. Unhoused people do not receive the same level of care or investment.
My question is to the Attorney General and Minister for Housing. Yesterday the minister said that his government is working to find isolation spaces for unhoused people in Duncan, Nanaimo and Prince George. When can unhoused people in these and other communities across the province expect to have their needs met urgently?
Hon. D. Eby: Thank you to the member for the question. There are a number of assertions that the member made in her question and that are not accurate.
People who are COVID-positive in Victoria and who are unhoused can come inside if they choose to. We have space. The same is true in Vancouver; the same is true in Kelowna. But it is not the case across the province, and I accept that. We have a very serious situation in Trail.
B.C. Housing is working overtime with health authorities and with our non-profit partners to make sure, if people are COVID-positive and want to come inside — because, frankly, not everybody does — that they’re able to do that.
I would just underline the fact that the member’s question starts at a certain point in time, omitting all of the work that was done by health authorities, by B.C. Housing and by non-profit organizations to get people inside. Three hundred people were living in an encampment in Strathcona Park and 250 people in parks in Victoria. All of those people are housed now. They’re inside.
It was a heroic effort by B.C. Housing and by non-profit organizations, and that work continues. The system is stretched. It is strained. People are working overtime. Staffing is stretched to the limits. Even so, 50 additional spaces were opened in Victoria to respond in time to make sure people could get inside if they wanted to.
So a huge amount of work is done. I just want to thank everybody who helped deliver those results and who is still working overtime to respond to the fourth wave across the province.