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‘I’m Really Scared’

Scenes from the Downtown Eastside in a time of pandemic.

Jesse Winter 24 Mar 2020 |

Jesse Winter is an award-winning photographer and writer currently based in Vancouver, B.C. He is focused primarily on social justice, the environment and government accountability stories. His work has appeared in the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the National Post and numerous other publications. He is most at home on the road armed with his camera, notepad and a few gallons of coffee.

On Friday, the line for a free dinner at Vancouver’s Union Gospel Mission stretched completely around the block — hundreds of hungry people waiting with tickets in hand. A handful of them wore protective face masks.

“This is completely unprecedented,” said Jeremy Hunka, UGM’s communications director as he walked down the line.

Lines like these usually happen, maybe, once a year at Christmas. He’s never seen the line so long on an otherwise typical Friday evening.

It’s been like this all week, Hunka said.

As Vancouver — and the country — grapples with the spreading COVID-19 pandemic, fears are growing in one of the city’s most vulnerable communities that not enough is being done to protect homeless and marginalized people.

On Thursday the City of Vancouver declared a state of emergency. The city has begun to give help to the Downtown Eastside, adding wash stations to a neighbourhood lacking in public washrooms and educating SRO operators and tenants about sanitation in their buildings. The city has also formed a Downtown Eastside Task Force with Vancouver Coastal Health, BC Housing and community groups. (A map of available services can be viewed here.)

Over the last 10 days, efforts have been made to step up the response. As well as the new hand washing stations — some of which have already been vandalized — more signage and information on COVID-19 prevention is appearing in business windows and public spaces.

But at the same time, some services have been cut back or closed to help promote social distancing. That’s led to increased pressure on providers like Union Gospel Mission to help pick up the slack.

Service providers have stepped up their efforts as well, creating social distancing policies and switching meal delivery from sit-down communal dinners to handing out meals for people to take away.

This is what the response looks like on the ground in the Downtown Eastside.

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“Is it true they’re sending in the army?” Rachel asked. A lack of outreach in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is contributing to misinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak spreading faster than the virus itself. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not ruled out enacting the federal Emergencies Act (formerly called the War Measures Act), the military has not been deployed within Canada to respond to the pandemic.
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People gather along Hastings Street in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside despite public warnings from the city and provincial government to practice social distancing. Advocates and residents in the neighbourhood worry a COVID-19 outbreak here could rip through the community ‘like wildfire.’
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At the overdose prevention tent at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park, there are plenty of harm reduction supplies for drug users, but no hand sanitizer or masks for the frontline volunteers who operate the site.
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A woman wearing a mask walks through the Oppenheimer Park tent encampment.
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A man who declined to give his name wears a hat reading ‘COVID-19 CONCENTRATION CAMP.’ Many residents of the Oppenheimer Park homeless encampment feel that federal, provincial and municipal governments are not doing enough to protect them from the virus.
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Nunu, who declined to give her last name, washes her hands at a public sink set up by the City of Vancouver at Oppenheimer Park in response to the COVID-19 epidemic.
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A city worker opens one of the public washrooms at Oppenheimer Park. The high demand at the park means the washrooms are frequently overflowing or clogged, making it hard for residents of the park to wash their hands regularly.
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A man wearing a protective mask crosses the street outside the Carnegie Community Centre in downtown Vancouver. The centre is one of the few that’s remaining open during the COVID-19 pandemic, but with reduced services and social distancing rules in place.
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A staff member takes out the garbage at the Carnegie Community Centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The community centre is a high-traffic area with services that many homeless and under-housed people rely on.
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Ali Kenny (right) and her friend Daikole Frazier eat a to-go meal they recieved from Union Gospel Mission. Both Frazier and Kenny said they have lost their jobs with a local charity because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
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Staff at Union Gospel Mission prepare meals to go for clients. The mission has closed its communal dining areas because of the COVID -19 outbreak.
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Staff at Union Gospel Mission prepare meals to go for clients. The mission has closed its communal dining areas because of the COVID -19 outbreak.
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Building maintenance worker Terry Lawrence uses disinfectant wipes to clean high-traffic areas at Union Gospel Mission’s main shelter location on Hastings Street in Vancouver, B.C. On March 12, Union Gospel Mission enacted its pandemic plan for COVID 19, which includes additional cleaning measures.
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A staff member from Union Gospel Mission squirts hand sanitizer for a homeless client.
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‘I’m really scared,’ said a woman at Oppenheimer Park who declined to give her name. She said many of her friends who live at the park worry they could die if an outbreak of COVID-19 hits the Downtown Eastside. ‘We are really strong women here, but we are all scared.’
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Emil Cernansky watches as outreach workers from the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society pass through Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Cernansky said he sleeps in his car because local shelters are too crowded and he fears he’ll catch COVID-19.
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Outreach workers from the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society hand out hot chocolate to homeless people living at the Oppenheimer Park encampment.
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People sit around a table at the Oppenheimer Park homeless encampment. One man, who declined to give his name, said there are not enough ways for people to wash their hands at the park.
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Peer workers from the Oppenheimer Park community post informational signs about social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Read more: Health, Coronavirus

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