VANCOUVER -- Acknowledging that people experiencing homelessness face a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19, the federal government has earmarked more than $10 million dollars to reduce the impacts of the coronavirus on Vancouver’s homeless population.

On the Downtown Eastside, people continue to gather in large groups on the sidewalk without regard to physical distancing.

“People don’t have anywhere to go,” said Jeremy Hunka of Union Gospel Mission.

Even under normal circumstances, UGM cannot offer enough shelter space for everyone living on the street.

In the midst of the pandemic, staff have been screening people entering the shelter for COVID-19 symptoms and have been given a Vancouver Coastal Health number to contact if someone is suspected of having the virus.

But Hunka says that line is only staffed Monday to Friday during regular business hours and many of the people seeking shelter at UGM do so in the evening.

“If somebody comes to our shelter with COVID-19 symptoms, agonizingly, at the moment we have nowhere to send them, nowhere to redirect them,” he said.

“That’s not the ideal solution and we just need to get everything set up faster and we hope this $10 million makes a difference there.”

Hunka would like to see much of the new federal funding dedicated to securing hotel rooms so that anyone living on the street can have a safe place to self-isolate and practice physical distancing.

Speaking at a news conference in Victoria, the province’s top doctor said she supports the idea that hotel rooms could be used to offer housing to the homeless during the pandemic – but says it’s complicated.

“All of these things are not simple, of course,” said Dr. Henry. “And it’s complex in terms of trying to find the right supports for the right people at the right time.”

BC Housing says it is working with local health authorities to secure spaces for people who need to self-isolate and will announce details when agreements are finalized.

Advocates like Hunka appreciate the injection of federal funding and are hopeful the province is working on solutions, but they worry any housing will only be made available to people with symptoms.

“We’re just not seeing things role out fast enough given the vulnerability of the people and the lives that are on the line,” he said.