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Vancouver seeks coordinator to produce ‘decriminalize poverty’ report

Police Chief Adam Palmer: ‘It can’t just be a reaction to let’s all of a sudden just cut the police and see what happens.’
The City of Vancouver plans to hire a coordinator to produce a ‘decriminalize poverty’ report for council by July, with recommendations aimed at reducing police interactions with marginalized people. File photo Rob Kruyt

The City of Vancouver plans to hire a coordinator to produce a report for council by this summer that includes actions the city can take to “decriminalize poverty” and reduce police interactions with marginalized citizens.

A description of the coordinator’s duties is outlined in a document the city posted in December on its bid page and is in response to a motion approved by council in July 2020 that called for policing to be “de-prioritized” as a response to mental health, sex work, homelessness and substance use calls.

According to the motion, council’s goal is to redirect funds from the Vancouver Police Department’s budget to have community-led groups, non-profit societies, health agencies and social service providers respond to such calls.

Council has set aside a budget of $300,000 for the overall initiative, but the city has not disclosed how much the coordinator will be paid, although the contract is expected to last six months.

“We are in the middle of a [request for proposal] process for the position so cannot comment on the exact amount allocated until that process is complete,” said the city’s communications department Friday in an emailed statement. “We anticipate having identified a coordinator around February.”

'Criminalized through police actions'

Whoever that person is must have established working relationships with communities in the Downtown Eastside and across the city, and have significant experience working with people with lived experience of poverty who have had interactions with the justice system.

The candidate must also “demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the ways in which poverty is criminalized through police actions, city bylaws and other means,” according the document on the city’s bid page.

The work is expected to be challenging, as a city staff memo to council in November pointed out in detailing staff’s attempts to reach consensus with 13 organizations on the best way to gather feedback from marginalized people.

The East Hastings Street strip in the Downtown Eastside. File photo Dan Toulgoet

The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, Battered Women’s Support Services, the BC Civil Liberties Association, the Hogan's Alley Society and Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society were among the 13 organizations represented in the talks.

“In late June of 2021, staff received significant feedback from the 13 organizations named in the motion about the process and several of the named organizations advised the [Downtown Eastside] community to not engage in the process,” said the memo authored by Sandra Singh, the city’s general manager of community services.

“Staff advised council that the process was stalled and staff would discuss further with the community organizations they were directed to seek input from and update on a revised process.”

Subsequent discussions led to the city and groups agreeing that a coordinator was needed to move forward on the project. Community groups will be involved in providing input into selection criteria and the hiring of the coordinator.

'Peer-assisted crisis team'

Meanwhile, Singh noted in her memo that one idea that was raised consistently in the meetings was the need for some type of trial program to divert mental health and other calls that do not require police response to other “community-service providers.”

Singh said the City of Victoria is working with the B.C. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association on developing such a temporary program, with provincial government funds to be spent on a “peer-assisted crisis team.”

“Staff will work on exploring what such a pilot would entail and will report back in advance of the broader motion report back,” she said.

“Another topic identified regularly by community groups has been how the city interacts with people experiencing homelessness or inadequate housing while undertaking cleaning of sidewalks and other public spaces, and so staff will also explore these concerns and discuss potential changes or alternatives.”

The VPD, meanwhile, released a report in November 2020 called “Our community in need,” which referenced council’s motion to decriminalize poverty. The VPD said it acknowledged that social issues, including mental health, homelessness, substance use and sex work, intersect with public safety.

“The VPD takes efforts to ensure inappropriate, ineffective, and unnecessary criminalization does not occur, but rather focuses on community-based, harm reduction strategies in collaboration with community service providers,” said the report, which highlighted the work of its mental health strategies, sex industry liaison officer and homeless outreach coordinator.

Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer at a blanketing ceremony at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre in 2015. File photo Dan Toulgoet

Police Chief Adam Palmer told Glacier Media in June 2020 that if the community wants to see the VPD doing things differently, then he wants to be at the table.

“I want to be part of those discussions, but it has to be an informed discussion and it has to be evidence based and a thoughtful discussion,” Palmer said. “It can’t just be a reaction to let’s all of a sudden just cut the police and see what happens.”

Added Palmer: “The things that we hear consistently with folks talking about this [defund the police] movement are things like the police not responding to mental health calls, the police not responding to domestic violence, the police not responding to calls like that. I’ll remind the community that the people who have been calling for police not to go to mental health calls for years and to put a better system in place is the police.”

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