‘A horrendous situation’: DTES advocate says city has failed people forced to sleep outside in snow

An advocate in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside says she found multiple people asleep on the ground – covered in snow – and is criticizing the city for what she calls a failure to help vulnerable people during a crisis.

Some people woke up freezing and covered in snow in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Wednesday morning, after one advocate says not enough shelter spaces were available for unhoused and vulnerable people during the latest winter storm.

Former Park Board Commissioner and now Executive Director of the Overdose Prevention Society Sarah Blyth-Gerszak tells CityNews she woke up early in the morning to make sure people were okay.

Executive Director of the Overdose Prevention Society Sarah Blyth-Gerszak
Executive Director of the Overdose Prevention Society Sarah Blyth-Gerszak (CityNews Image)

“I went out to see if the city was doing its job, making sure that they were doing outreach because I’ve been hearing for the past couple of days that people are going to shelters and the shelters are full, so they’re walking around looking for places to go,” she said.

During her walk, Blyth-Gerszak found multiple people asleep on the ground in the snow, including one person in a wheelchair on the side of the road.

“If people are in a wheelchair and have disabilities, it’s really hard to get around. I’ve been asking for the city to do some sort of program where they’re just driving around looking for people, making sure they pick them up and making sure they get to a shelter … It’s a terrible situation,” she said.

“It’s always our most vulnerable people who are falling through the cracks, it really is. I can say that for certain from being down here. It’s unbelievable, that we don’t do enough to help them.”

Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley are under a snowfall warning, with up to 20 centimetres expected to fall across the region by early Wednesday evening. The snow started falling around midnight.

Blyth-Gerszak says despite the City of Vancouver’s assurances that there are shelter spaces and warming centres available to vulnerable people during the cold weather, “it doesn’t match what I’m hearing from people.”

“We have our doors open for people to come in, and we’re trying to do the best outreach we can do, but I just can see that there’s a lot of people being left out,” she said.

“And it’s really hard to only have a skeleton crew trying to get people in when the city could put more resources into making sure that people get inside, especially if they’re taking tents away.”

Blyth-Gerszak’s assessment comes after city staff, flanked by Vancouver Police Department officers, forcibly removed people living in tents from Oppenheimer Park during last week’s bitter cold.

More than 20 tents were taken down and belongings were discarded, leaving some individuals feeling angry and humiliated.

The desire to want people out of parks and into housing and shelter is understandable, Blyth-Gerszak says, but the city has to provide enough shelter, “especially at this time of year.”

“It’s so cold and it’s snowing. Taking people’s stuff away is a deadly thing, and I really wouldn’t be surprised that people die during this time.”

She adds the unregulated illicit drug supply is so toxic at the moment, that she expects “people will literally pass out in the street and die. That’s where it’s at.”

Despite her calls for the city to step in and do more to help people get into shelter and safety, Blyth-Gerszak says she hadn’t heard from anyone at the city Wednesday.

“[Coun.] Rebecca Bligh said that she was looking into it. But, my main focus has been getting some outreach going, making sure people aren’t sleeping on the street,” she said.

“I can’t imagine being a city with all those resources that they have to be able to do something, being able to sleep at night, and or put out press releases about how great things are going, when things really aren’t going good; when things are really, really, actually really bad, and when people really can die, and you’re responsible for that.

“I’d be roaming down there myself and making sure that people are not dying on the streets in the city that I’m a councillor, mayor of.”

Blyth-Gerszak is obviously frustrated at the city’s response, saying she doesn’t know how to “get it through their heads” that a greater response is required to keep people safe.

“Just sending out press releases about how great they’re doing and how, how everything’s okay, when you can clearly see if you walk out for two minutes, that it’s not okay, and that people will die,” she said. “I think that’ll be reflected unfortunately in some of the coroner’s reports when it comes out, but it’ll come out after the fact.”

“I’ve totally lost my patience with waiting around watching this — watching people die all the time. It’s just a horrendous situation,” Blyth-Gerszak added.

She explains even without the latest snowstorm, people are dying at an “alarming rate,” and not enough is being down to get people into safe spaces.

Pointing at a recent District of North Vancouver city council meeting that ended after five days with staff to report back about a supportive housing development, Blyth-Gerszak says, “You don’t want homeless people outside — that bothers you — but you won’t have them come inside, where they’re going to be healthier and happier and live better lives. It’s ridiculous.”

“We just have to get on with it. … You’re blocking solutions.”

Not everyone feels safe inside: UGM

Other outreach services and shelters are also out in the weather helping people. But for some, as Sarah Chew with the Union Gospel Mission explains, inside isn’t an option.

“People don’t feel safe; there are many reasons why people choose not to stay in shelters, even with the cold, even with the snow,” she told CityNews. “Maybe they don’t feel safe due to the circumstances they’ve faced before.”

Chew says people who are already from vulnerable sectors of the community often can feel more at risk in shelter settings.

“If they are women, if they are part of the 2SLGBTQI+ community — there could be multiple reasons,” she added.

But it’s not just themselves they’re considering, she explains, as many have strict rules on who and what is allowed in spaces.

“Some shelters allow pets, some don’t. Some have the capacity for families, some don’t. We really see a variety of needs.”

All hands on deck

Speaking for the City of Vancouver, coun. Rebecca Bligh tells CityNews she understands “there is cause for concern.”

“I think it’s a very important point being raised and of course, creating emergency response services that are as inclusive as they possibly can be such that anybody that needs to access those services feels comfortable and safe to do so is our top priority,” she explained Wednesday.

“Of course, when we think about longer term responses to homelessness, ideally we have spaces that support people’s individual needs, culturally appropriate services, and inclusive support services and systems that makes sure that all those that are requiring those supports are included. In an event like we are seeing today, and in the past 24 hours and will continue, we’re doing our very best. We’re opening up emergency response shelters and beds right now. If somebody has a concern, we hope that they’ll bring it to the attention of the staff that are working in that emergency shelter. And, of course, we continue to work with the nonprofits like UGM and others, as well as the province.”

She says it has been “all hands on deck,” from first responders to city teams, to support those who need help. However, Bligh is also asking other Vancouverites to do their part.

“If you see someone who is struggling, if they’re in a medical emergency or needs supports, call 911. And if you are looking to help them get inside somewhere, you (can) call 311 and we will be responding to that location,” she explained.

“Of course, we want to be sure that we are able to access anybody who needs support and be brought inside.”

Bligh says the city has been opening more warming centres throughout the day and updating these locations online.

“We just want people to remember that we’re increasing capacity to the best of our ability every single hour, so to not give up if you need to find a place to go inside,” she said. “I know sometimes people don’t want to come inside — we really ask that you do come inside. It’s the safest place for you to be in weather like this.”

With files from Liza Yuzda

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