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Isolation RVs Fill a Need for Homeless People During Pandemic

Options are limited for unhoused people awaiting test results, so one service agency has turned to motor homes.

Jen St. Denis 19 Jan 2021 |

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

A Vancouver social service agency has bought two recreational vehicles to help people who are homeless or living in shelters to self-isolate while they wait for the result of COVID-19 tests.

Duncan Higgon, senior manager of housing for PHS Community Services Society, said the RVs will fill a need and reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading through the Downtown Eastside and other at-risk communities.

Up to now, a homeless person waiting for test results — a process that can take up to two days — has nowhere to go except a shelter.

Higgon said that could lead to more transmission, because shelter managers are placing people who may or may not have COVID-19 together in a special isolation area.

And other people waiting for test results have to find their own isolation solutions.

“We are leaving you in the tent, in the community at Strathcona Park... the library if they’re open, buses and public transit, malls or Tim Hortons where you stay warm — and shelters,” Higgon said. “Shelters are congregate settings. So we’ve had to make some really dire, dire decisions.”

PHS has created space for people who need to self-isolate at its New Fountain Shelter, but that has meant taking away the women’s-only area of the coed shelter and using it for people who need to isolate.

And reduced shelter capacity because of the need to social distance has meant there are 379 fewer winter shelter spots open in Vancouver this year compared to last year.

Tanya Fader, director of housing for PHS, said the organization faced a challenge when people who tested positive for COVID-19 came to the shelter at night after the intake process was closed for the day.

“Obviously, we don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, you’re being screened, and you need to isolate, or you test positive — we’re kicking you out on the street,’” said Fader.

“So we came up with the idea of maybe if we could use [RVs], because they’re their own self-contained units.”

People who are unhoused and who have tested positive for COVID-19 usually go and stay in hotels under the supervision of Vancouver Coastal Health. The idea is that the RVs will be a short-term option.

People who live in SRO hotels — buildings with shared bathrooms — might also make use of the RVs to self-isolate if they can’t get a spot at a hotel right away.

PHS applied for new emergency federal funding in December and was able to get $429,000 to buy two RVs and provide 24-7 staffing. Staff will mostly work out of a van near the RVs but will also have access to offices at nearby PHS buildings.

PHS is working with Vancouver Coastal Health to make sure infection protocols and other processes are in place.

PHS has plans to buy another three RVs if needed. The two campers the organization has already purchased are now set up and should be operating soon.

The RVs will be needed after the pandemic is over, Higgon said. When homeless people get sick but are not ill enough to go to hospital, there’s often nowhere for them to stay. That includes someone sick with stomach flu or a woman in the late stages of pregnancy.

“A lot of our structures, medical and otherwise, are premised around this idea that we have an [indoor] space,” Higgon said.

“When we take that variable out of the equation, it all becomes more complicated.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Coronavirus, Housing

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