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Mike Howell: What I’ve learned in covering the Downtown Eastside for 20 years

The troubled Vancouver neighbourhood is again making news, as it has for decades
The Downtown Eastside’s East Hastings Street strip is making headlines again, despite two decades of promises from politicians to improve the lives of people in the neighbourhood.

The Downtown Eastside is again making news this summer.

Which is not really news.

In the 20 years of writing about poverty, drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness along the East Hastings Street corridor, the story remains the same: people are suffering, people are dying and politicians make promises to do better.

The pandemic coupled with a poisoned drug supply, and the lack of housing for more than 2,000 unhoused people across the city, has noticeably exacerbated and exposed the human tragedy.

The summer heat, as it has done for decades, forces people out of their single-room-occupancy hotels to the street for fresh air and safety; many of the hotels are in disrepair, without proper ventilation, infested with rodents and bugs and have been and continue to be scenes of violence.

So make of it what you will of the population currently living/surviving/loitering on the sidewalks up and down East Hastings Street, where — yes — drugs are being sold and consumed, where stolen goods are being hawked and people are being assaulted, even lit on fire.

Homicides are not uncommon. Overdose deaths continue to set records.

Trauma is at the core of much of it.

That version of the Downtown Eastside is on a chronic news cycle.

Community courage award

The music, the art and the poetry of the community is not often celebrated in news pages. Anyone remember poet Bud Osborn?

Engaging programs for seniors (ping pong, line dancing, "survival" English courses) and clubs for kids at community centres haven't made for a lot of front page copy. Anyone remember the RayCam youth running club led by national team runner Matt Johnston?

The community work of Indigenous elders like Marjorie White and young people like Genoa Point — both winners of a “community courage award” in 2012 — should also be considered for a different perspective on the neighbourhood.

Musicians are well represented, too.

But I digress.

As long as I’ve been in this job, I’ve heard countless strategies, ideas, recommendations and plans from well-meaning folks to better conditions for people living in the Downtown Eastside.

Doctors, health care workers, housing advocates, community residents, business owners, non-profit leaders, cops and politicians have all weighed in.

Still, the poverty persists.

Larry Campbell's inauguration speech

Last Friday at city hall, I pointed out to Mayor Kennedy Stewart that there has been a succession of mayors and provincial and federal politicians over the past 20 years who have promised to do better, although Stephen Harper’s government led an unsuccessful battle to shut down the Insite drug injection site and was absent on the housing file.

Larry Campbell was mayor when Insite opened in 2003.

Here’s some of what he said at his inauguration speech in 2002:

“If we do our work well, we should be able to eliminate the open drug market on the Downtown Eastside by the next election. We should see more people in treatment and detox. A comprehensive education and prevention program should be in place to reduce the toll of drug addiction. New housing and business investment should be generating new activity in the community.”

Then along came Sam Sullivan, who launched his “project civil city” program and drug treatment proposal in an effort to reduce street disorder and homelessness by 50 per cent. Gregor Robertson then pledged to end “street homelessness” by 2015.

A look at the strip today will tell you the result of their efforts.

Stewart has pushed for a safe supply of drugs, decriminalization and often boasts about the amount of housing being built or in the pipeline because of $1 billion he has secured in funds from the provincial and federal governments.

He’s right that more modular housing, more hotels converted into housing, more stand-alone supportive and social buildings have opened up in the past few years for unhoused people and those at risk of homelessness.

But it’s 2022 and the Downtown Eastside and other parts of the city remain desperate scenes.

“It's a typical case where demand is outstripping supply,” the mayor said. “And as fast as we can build affordable housing, whether it's modular, which has been built at a record pace —over 1000 of those units — or it's securing more permanent social housing, the supply is not keeping pace with demand.”

'Pressure is greater than ever'

Stewart said Vancouver is often the first place in B.C. that people in need come to because of the concentration of social services — food, clothing, drug consumption sites, medical clinics and shelter space, if it’s available.

Encampments in parks have also attracted people from outside the city.

“Talking with police and social service agencies and nonprofits, the pressure is greater than ever, but I do think our response is the proper one — to invest in housing first,” he said. “We've literally housed hundreds of people over the last four years, like actually moved them off the street into a stable situation.”

But, of course, the province and the feds have to invest more, as Stewart and his predecessors have all repeatedly said — to which Vancouver-Granville Liberal MP Taleeb Noormohamed, who was with the mayor at city hall for an unrelated news conference, responded:

“The folks who live in the Downtown Eastside, the people on Hastings deserve dignified places to live, they deserve access to the services that they need, they deserve, as the mayor said, to be lifted up. We have to be able to do that in partnership with organizations that know those populations best and are able to serve them.”

Noormohamed went on to say the Liberal government has made record investments in housing and support services in Vancouver.

No one from the provincial government was with Noormohamed and Stewart, but previous statements sent my way in recent years from various ministries have pointed to investments in temporary modular housing, stand-alone housing, the purchase of hotels and efforts to reduce overdose deaths and treat people living with a mental illness.

VPD Chief: 'Nobody's in charge'

At a city council-sponsored forum in April, Police Chief Adam Palmer was blunt about whether the provincial government’s efforts were having the desired effect.

“Nobody’s in charge, like nobody's in charge of the grand picture,” he said, before pointing to Strathcona as a neighbourhood that has issues requiring responses from several provincial ministries.

“You’ve got poverty reduction, you've got employment issues, you've got housing issues, you've got criminal justice issues, you've got attorney general issues, education — there's so many different ministries…that all overlap in that neighbourhood.”

Added Palmer: “But there's nobody really pulling it all together. There's a lot of silos happening in government.”

At the same time, the chief said, there is “great work” occurring with various agencies working together, including the VPD-Vancouver Coastal Health mental health teams, but it is being conducted in a piecemeal way.

So what’s the solution?

It’s not magic, to borrow a phrase from former Carnegie Community Centre director Michael Clague, who sent me a “prescription” in 2019 for improving the lives of people in the Downtown Eastside.

At one time, Clague was also the co-chairperson of the Downtown Eastside Local Area Planning Committee. So his prescription has some educated thought and experiential weight to it.

Thought I’d repeat it here again for those who missed it.

Give it a read, tell me what you think.

Seven priorities:

• Build shelter-rate housing in the DTES and throughout the city.

• Raise the shelter rate allowance.

• Give those currently living in the DTES the option of remaining in the community or relocating to elsewhere in the city.

• Provide social and health supports within a continuum of care 24/7 in those residences where they are required for the welfare of residents.

• Provide safe custodial residential care for residents whose condition is such that they are a risk to themselves and to others. This means that people at risk for self-harm and for harm to others are voluntarily and involuntarily living in supervised residences for designated periods of time to ensure they have the best available health care. Advocacy and legal guarantees are designed so that their inherent rights and liberties are respected.

• Remove restrictions on access to addictive drugs (decriminalize).

• Design and provide culturally relevant programs and services, especially involving the large Aboriginal community.

Six conditions:

• Work respectfully with and learn from those most affected in the planning and provision of these seven priorities.

• Build on the strengths inherent in the community.

• Create volunteer and employment opportunities in the DTES and in the city at large, geared to people’s readiness, emphasizing opportunities to contribute to community life.

• Recognize and support the community arts as one of the most accessible, proven means for personal and community development.

• Recognize that the Downtown Eastside can be a healthy, predominately low-income community.

• Build informed support throughout Vancouver for these measures.