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Wish upon a czar for the Downtown Eastside

Our nation's slum should be diverse and welcoming

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER — The greatest legacy of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics will be the incentive it gave politicians to do something about homelessness. But any hopes that the Games would spur civic leaders to finally address the systemic problems of the anguished Downtown Eastside have all but vanished.

This is too bad because the time has long since passed to end the suffering there, to halt bad policies that serve only to perpetuate the abuse and despair found around virtually every corner. And if fixing the problems there means confronting and ultimately ignoring the stale and often self-preserving dogma of the poverty industry that has bloomed in the area, so be it.

It is time the Downtown Eastside became a neighbourhood that welcomed everyone, the middle class and the business class. It is time it became a neighbourhood that respected and accommodated the poor, but is not just a neighbourhood for the poor.

It won't be easy.

Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu recently released a discussion paper on the Downtown Eastside (DTES) entitled Project Lockstep. Unlike the dozens of well-intentioned papers that have gone before it, this one may have fixed upon an idea that could ultimately drive the change necessary for the neighbourhood to be nursed back to health.

Or not.

The report calls for the creation of a new position: director for the most vulnerable. Okay, not the catchiest of job titles, I agree. But nearly everyone who has studied the area or who has tried, in various roles, to do something about the complex problems that exist there, applaud the recommendation. I do as well.

The wisdom behind the idea is this: while there have been many well-meaning programs and strategies for dealing with the DTES over the years — ah, decades — there has not been an over-arching vision for the neighbourhood. There has been any number of housing plans but no grand blueprint for how the DTES could and should be transformed so it resembles, dare I say, a more normal, less dysfunctional community.

This is what many believe a so-called czar of the DTES could provide.

It sounds wonderful — in theory. But talk to anyone who knows anything about the unrelenting and often oppressive politics of the area and you won't find one who can imagine a harder, perhaps more thankless job. You see, fixing the DTES ultimately means engaging in some kind of showdown with the collection of social agencies, poverty groups, activists of all stripes who have consistently opposed changes that upset the status quo.

Consensus on a future for the area among this group is unachievable.

It's amazing the power it wields. Many of the city's business and political elite cower in the presence of its representatives. For years now it has sold and we have bought the specious notion that any attempt to dilute the neighbourhood of its concentration of poor, addicted and mentally ill is an attack on the most vulnerable.

As a result, nothing ever gets done to improve the lives of those living there. Actually, that's not true. There has been a steady increase in the number of agencies and services to deal with the burgeoning volume of lost souls who arrive to avail themselves of, among other things, free clean needles with which to inject themselves.

Geoff Plant, the immensely respected former B.C. attorney-general who is wrapping up his 18-month stint as the first and last Civil City commissioner, spent much of his time in the job pondering the problems of the neighbourhood. He put it this way to me.

"Sometimes the wall of protection that is built around the Downtown Eastside by well-intentioned advocates has the effect of shutting the rest of us out in a way that encourages an isolationism that sooner or later turns the place into the ghetto that it is and shouldn't be," he said.

"It should be diverse and welcoming. And I think it can be that way while at the same time preserving its historical character."

All this makes me skeptical about the success any DTES czar would have, as much as I like the idea. Is there anyone out there with the kind of fortitude and royal jelly it would take to pull change off? Who had the Zen-type nature to deal with the abuse that would come with the job? Would the person have the unwavering support of the three levels of government that would be imperative to do the job? Or would the mayor or premier back down at the first sign of trouble or upset?

Bringing real change to the DTES would have its ugly moments, I guarantee you. But unless we're prepared to deal with them and live through them and ultimately believe that bringing a healthy orthodoxy to this neighbourhood has to be better than what exists today then nothing will ever change — to our everlasting shame.

What needs to be done? My goodness, where do you begin?

For starters, you need to have a true housing mix. That is, a sensible ratio that spans all income levels. The conversion of the old Woodward's site to a massive condominium development with a mix of market and non-market housing is a start. But it sits on the edge of the worst parts of the DTES. That concept needs to spread throughout the neighbourhood.

I don't imagine any scenario in which the poor who have lived there for years are kicked out. But nor do I accept that someone who has arrived from New Brunswick six months ago and is living in a single-room occupancy hotel on welfare is "entitled" to live in the DTES because "he's part of the neighbourhood."

There are all manner of people in the DTES who need help, who need access to nursing and psychological counselling. They need a place to live with that kind of in-house support but it shouldn't be concentrated in one area, in my view.

The province has already begun buying up some of the worst, scummiest hotels in the area, which are being renovated and will be handed over to a non-profit agency to be run. This is good. It should help give those who have lived in the most squalid of conditions for years a new sense of pride. This, too, is good.

I don't envision the DTES being turned into a Yaletown, the trendy former warehouse district to the south that imagines itself as Soho north. Nor do I imagine a neighbourhood with 40-storey-high shimmering condo towers. The DTES can be different, can be edgier, maybe an artist's colony of some sort. Something that incorporates the old neighbourhood into a revitalized one.

But it can, and has to be, a district that welcomes a much broader segment of society, people who'll take pleasure in looking after their streets and who will support a new generation of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. People, more importantly, who won't tolerate drug dealers on their corners, who will insist that some order and civility be brought to bear in the area in which their children are being raised.

Who knows what is to become of the DTES? Will the Olympic spotlight finally cause us enough embarrassment and humiliation that we, as a society, say enough is enough? Say we will no longer be held hostage by the well-meaning but ultimately self-serving interests of a few?

Only time will tell.

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