VANCOUVER -- While most schools sit empty, the once-vacant gym at a Metro Vancouver high school now has a new purpose.

The Massey gym at New Westminster Secondary School opened its doors Monday to a group of vulnerable people in need of shelter.

The gym is being used as what BC Housing calls an emergency response centre.

It will only be used temporarily, the Crown corporation that manages subsidized housing programs in B.C. says, but for now, it has space for up to 40 people in need.


"Many people experiencing homelessness are living in situations where the COVID-19 virus could spread more quickly," BC Housing said in a fact sheet on the project.

"They also have higher rates of health concerns and may be at greater risk if exposed to the virus."

The temporary shelter in New West is one example of the temporary reassignment of buildings that is underway in B.C. to allow for those previously living on the street, in shelters, or in crowded tent cities to safely self-isolate.

They also provide access to hygiene facilities.

Vancouver community centres and hotel rooms are also being used, among other accommodations.

"While this is an unprecedented use of public buildings, this initiative will form part of our collective efforts to try to prevent the spread of the virus and mitigate the demand on our health-care system," BC Housing said.

At the school, anyone living in the temporary emergency response centre will have already been tested by Fraser Health, a partner in the project.

It will not be open to the public, and walk-ins will not be accepted.

CTV News has reached out to Fraser Health and BC Housing to find out how many people stayed in the centre on its first night.

The centre is being overseen by Lookout Housing and Health Society, a group BC Housing says has "significant experience" working with vulnerable populations.

Daily nutritious meals will be provided, and the space will be cleaned regularly by a service.

Addressing any security concerns the community may have, BC Housing said in a letter sent to parents late last week, "The ERC will be operated by an experienced housing provider with staff onsite 24/7 supported by security guards to respond to any issues that may arise.

"Trained staff and security teams will be working both inside the shelter space and patrolling the exterior to ensure everyone remains safe and secure."

Fraser Health offer support in terms of health-care, and guests will have access to showers, entertainment, social supports and service connections.

There will also be a secure storage space for their belongings.

As for concerns for students' health when they return, those behind the project say, "As part of the contract, BC Housing has committed to a professional and rigorous cleaning of the Massey Complex, with cleaning procedures outlined by infection protection and control."

A statement posted online by the school district's secretary-treasurer and CEO provided further details.

"It was determined that space within the Massey Complex, on our school district property, was the best option to help support vulnerable people in our community," Bettina Ketcham wrote.

She said BC Housing and the City of New Westminster considered a number of locations before settling on the gym.

"Interior work has been done to block access to any unneeded rooms and exterior fencing has been erected to create a designated space for shelter guests to safely distance as they enjoy some fresh air."