What rules apply in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside?

Ken MacQueen on financial accountability in Canada’s poorest postal code

A group of homeless and poor seek shelter from the rain outside a store in the Downtown Eastside area of Vancouver on February 11, 2010. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

A group of homeless and poor seek shelter from the rain outside a store in the Downtown Eastside area of Vancouver on February 11, 2010. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

There has in recent decades been a sense that the normal rules don’t apply, can’t apply, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It is a hard place, its residents are complicated. Most of them are poor, thousands of them are drug addicted and/or struggling with mental health issues. They are special. They deserve a break.

So its denizens wander across East Hastings Street, oblivious to traffic lights and traffic laws, and predictably they are mowed down with great regularity. Vancouver Police launch a ticket campaign and are accused of an attack on the poor. So the answer is to slow traffic on Hastings, a major artery, to 30km/hr. What’s a cop to do?

On any given day you can walk past the alleys and see residents smoking crack or buying and selling a regular pharmacy of illicit drugs. Often addicted women pay for the transaction on their knees, or in the backseat of a car. But what’s a cop to do? Maybe they bust a few dealers and the occasional John, but the open drug and street-corner sex markets carry on—because things are different here.

It’s now quite clear that rule-blindness also applies to financial accountability, as revealed March 20 in the release of two damning KPMG audits of the PHS Community Services Society (PHS), the leading government-subsidized service provider in Canada’s poorest postal code. The excesses include: $8,600 in limousine bills for one executive in 2013; $8,300 for a trip to the U.K. to look into a heroin prescription program, necessitating, apparently, a $900-a-night hotel room; $5,800 for a cruise as a gift to a society director; $7,000 for a “celebration of life” for a dead employee; a trip to Disneyland for another director. In fact, $300,000 in travel costs between 2010 and 2012 including trips to Istanbul, Paris, Vienna, Los Angeles and New York City. And on and on.

By the time the province released the audits by B.C. Housing and the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, PHS co-founders Liz Evans and her husband, Mark Townsend, and their combined $300,000-plus salaries, had been shoved out the door, along with the rest of the board. The audits blew apart the credibility of PHS, which has, as even the auditors concede, done a good job of managing a difficult clientele.

The scandal raises serious questions about the poverty industry that flourishes in the neighbourhood. A few years back The Province newspaper, after months of research, concluded that more than $1 million a day in government and charitable money was pouring into the neighbourhood. While it’s unfair to tar every charity, group, soup kitchen and storefront ministry with the same brush, one wonders where the money goes. And why so little seems to change. Every new business or housing project in the area that doesn’t cater exclusively to the poor or addicted is condemned by activists as “gentrification,” a dirty word for those who seem to prefer the wretched nobility of the status quo. Outside of this neighbourhood such projects are celebrated as “urban renewal.” Even the language is different here.

PHS took root more than 20 years back when Liz Evans, a nurse, was hired to run the flea bag Portland Hotel. She was supposed to fill it with the tame poor, but she had other ideas. “We felt like we had descended into an area where people were getting sick and dying, really nice people that we got to know and nobody else gave a shit about,” she said in a past interview with Maclean’s. “Junkies were junk and if you helped and supported people who were addicted, you were part of the problem.”

So Evans, and soon enough Townsend, who became her husband, broke the rules and turned the Portland into a home for the especially hard to house—those with massive addictions, often combined with mental health issues. “We became sort of counter to the common logic of the day, which was if you take this population in off the street you’re making it worse for them because you’re enabling them.” Today, the common logic has changed. Stable housing is indeed considered the first step to a better, longer, healthier life for the most vulnerable. Evans and Townsend broke the rules, and they were right.

The years went by and PHS expanded. Drug overdoses and HIV/AIDS were taking an enormous toll in the community. The heath authority declared an emergency. Drastic measures are called for. A controversial supervised injection facility called Insite opened in 2003. It is funded by the provincial Ministry of Health, through Vancouver Coastal Health, and its operations were turned over to PHS—one of its earliest, and most vocal, proponents.

The federal Conservative government waged a legal war trying to shut the facility down, finally losing in the Supreme Court of Canada. Meantime, study after scientific study shows that Insite’s harm-reduction model has saved lives by taking addicts out of the alleys and into a safe place, and by reducing the spread of disease through dirty needles and untreated conditions. Evans, Townsend and PHS staff were among those who broke the rules, and by any objective measure, they were right.

Some years back I walked through the neighbourhood with Evans and Townsend and was astonished at the scope of PHS’s endeavours. They have leveraged some $29 million a year in government funds into housing, Insite, detox and treatment beds, a meal preparation and bicycle delivery service, clothing and craft shops run by the poor and recovering addicts, a savings bank operated through a local trust company, a coffee shop, as well as rent-paying businesses in renovated PHS-run buildings. A floor of one PHS building has even been converted into a series of acute-care rooms, essentially an arm of St. Paul’s Hospital, because the seriously ill are less likely to walk away from treatment if they are in familiar surroundings.

“This is a community of housing and connected things that is trying to fit together like a gargantuan jigsaw puzzle,” Evans said at the time.

What went wrong? Townsend, in a series of interviews since his dismissal, insisted PHS never spent government money on anything other than programming and its nine-per-cent cut for administrative overhead. The other spending, like trips for stressed staff members, came from “private and non-government funding,” he said. Maybe so, but it’s doubtful donors would knowingly have footed the bill for, say, a stay at New York’s Plaza Hotel or a $900 baby shower.

Maybe PHS got too gargantuan. Maybe Evans and Townsend, after years of bumping heads and breaking rules, grew cynical. Maybe, like too many activists in the neighbourhood, they developed an entitled sense that this is their turf and they know best; just leave the money at the door and bugger off.

It’s a pity, really, so many good things have been cast in doubt. But perhaps now governments, charities and funding agencies will take a harder look at where the money goes. Surely a million dollars a day can buy more than a daily dose of despair. It’s time to work within the rules. The residents are special. They do deserve a break.




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What rules apply in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside?

  1. This is what is meant by “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Gentrification is the only way the downtown east side will ever improve. The activists love the current situation because it allows them to normalize the dysfunctionality of the area. You hear it in their rhetoric about preserving the area for low income people. Gentrification destroys that insularity with new residents who don’t tolerate the disorder. The population of the downtown east side clearly needs more intensive help, but it’s often hard for an outsider to distinguish between what’s considered “unorthodox” and what’s simply enabling the dysfunction.

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