VANCOUVER -- The provincial government is setting aside $200,000 to provide supports and paid work experience for residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The funding will be used to hire 40 residents over six months for roles that will support others living in one of the city's most vulnerable communities.

The jobs they'll do include providing information and awareness on COVID-19-related health measures, and helping with access to sanitation, food, housing and health services.

Also among their duties is to ensure physical distancing is followed on days when social assistance cheques are issued, the province said.

And they'll be tasked with providing information on other government supports and resources.

Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, B.C.'s minister of advanced education, skills and training said the money for the community-based support program comes from the Canada-B.C. Workforce Development Agreement.

Melanie Mark said peers are best equipped to understand residents' needs, which she described as being "complex and diverse" in the Downtown Eastside.

"Many of these individuals were failed by the residential school system, are immune compromised, and are struggling with mental health and addictions," she said.

"For many people in the Downtown Eastside, their peers are their only family and source of strength."

Calling it a "unique grassroots approach," Mark said the paid experience will give workers the skills and knowledge they need for future jobs.

The provincially-funded program builds on work already done by the Eastside Movement for Business and Economic Renewal Society.

The society, which goes by the acronym EMBERS, is a registered charity with a mission to create employment opportunities for people with low incomes.

Its website says it offers employment opportunities and services through several key programs, and hosts workshops and job training.

It will work with several other peer network organizations to identify potential workers.

And staff with EMBERS will also gather data from residents of the area, which will then help inform future programs meant to support the community.

The initiative was announced by the province Tuesday, but a pilot project was previously launched by the City of Vancouver. More than 40 charities and not-for-profit organizations were involved, the province said.

B.C.'s minister of social development, Shane Simpson, said peer support workers have been on the front lines throughout the pandemic.

On the last few cheque-issuing days, these peers played a "critical role" in maintaining physical distancing, he said as an example.

They've also taken on supporting roles during the clearing out of Vancouver's Oppenheimer Park. They worked to help homeless residents of the long-term tent city express their concerns with being moved, to connect with the right housing agency, and even to pack their belongings, Simpson said.

"Peer workers play an essential role in gaining trust with people as they transition to being housed," he said.

"It really is hard to overestimate the value of someone being able to honestly say, 'I understand what you're going through. I've been where you are.' And peers can do that, and they can do it in ways that as government officials, as politicians, we simply cannot do."