• Single coordinator needed to end humanitarian crisis in DTES

    Op-ed originally published in The Vancouver Sun on March 19, 2021. Photograph by: Jesse Winter / Reuters

    The humanitarian crisis in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has been decades in the making. Rooted in Canada’s traumatic colonial legacy, the ongoing effects of poverty and racism combined with the proliferation of drugs and a patchwork of ineffective government policies have abandoned thousands of Downtown Eastside residents and created a social and economic crisis for the City of Vancouver.

    A long-term, collaborative, and integrated strategy led by a single oversight body is needed now if we are to put an end to this crisis.

    The Downtown Eastside represents two per cent of the geographical area of Vancouver, and with 20,000 people is home to less than three per cent of the city’s population. But 21 per cent of all service calls to the Vancouver Police Department and over 20 per cent of the mental health service calls originate from the neighbourhood.

    The life expectancy in the Downtown Eastside is about 65 years, compared to 84.5 years for the general population. Since 2016, the opioid menace has killed roughly 1,600 people in the city, with many of them in the Downtown Eastside. These numbers are not just statistics — each one of these people is a parent, brother, sister, or child. They are members of our families and communities.

    These losses represent a history of collective failure through policy and neglect.

    To accommodate Expo 86, over 1,000 residents of single-room occupancy hotels were evicted from their homes to accommodate tourists. They were left on their own, scrambling to find shelter.

    The closure of Riverview Hospital in 1987 displaced hundreds of people suffering from mental illness and addiction, and the B.C. Liberal government extensively cut service for the most vulnerable and marginalized.

    The real estate boom has made housing unaffordable while governments have consistently failed to invest sufficiently in social housing options. Rampant illicit drug supply has fuelled the substance use and increased criminality in the city.

    Today, the City of Vancouver is severely challenged by the social and economic impacts of this crisis.

    Heavy call loads on police, fire, health, housing, and mental health services providers are becoming major stressors on personnel and resources.

    Over $1 million per day is being spent in the Downtown Eastside by various agencies. Thanks to the countless community organizations such as Atria Women’s Resource Society, Wish Drop-in Centre Society, Union Gospel Mission, Downtown East Side Neighbourhood House Society, Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre, Covenant House, and others, many receive desperately needed nutritious meals and safe housing and support services.

    The joint Vancouver Coastal Health and Vancouver police mental health outreach Car 87/88 program is also a lifesaver for many. While much is being done, the effort is largely a patchwork of public and not-for-profit attempts to provide short-term, reactive relief.

    This crisis will not be resolved through such an approach. We need a collaborative, long-term solution now.

    Two reports have recommended such a strategy. The 2009 Vancouver police report “Project Lockstep: A United Effort to Save Lives in the Downtown Eastside” called for a director to be established who would coordinate and collaborate with all agencies working in the neighbourhood.

    In 2014, the Mayor’s Task Force on Mental Health and Addiction concluded that a collective impact initiative be developed for all the service providers.

    Again in 2017, the newly appointed B.C. minister of mental health and addictions, Judy Darcy, was encouraged to increase collaboration and administrative oversight.

    To date there has been little action. Why?

    Poverty, mental health needs, addiction and homelessness are not going away. They need a long-term integrated service delivery model with a single oversight body.

    The provincial government and Vancouver city council should create such an oversight body to lead multi-sectoral and multi-agency partnerships. Comprehensive wrap-around services must be more effective through efficient investment of taxpayers’ money and deliver more compassionate care.

    Let us be pragmatic and bridge our ideological, political, gender, class, and racial divides to create long-term innovative pathways for ending this humanitarian crisis and finding sustainable solutions for lasting transformation.