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The money pit

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In the past two years, the B.C. government has bought 13 run-down residential hotels in the Downtown Eastside with the intention of fixing them up for the homeless. The final bill for the real-estate buying spree is not yet known.

The spending on housing in the neighbourhood goes well beyond buying and reviving skid-road hotels.

In 2000, the federal and provincial governments announced at least $72-million in expenditures on housing and temporary shelters in the area. Since then, an additional $104-million has gone into subsidized housing, outreach programs to homeless people and rent supplements, according to The Globe's estimate.

In the same period, city hall spent $155-million on affordable and subsidized housing throughout Vancouver. Although the city does not separate its spending by neighbourhood, a municipal official said much of the housing was for people who may have ended up in the Downtown Eastside without alternatives.

It is also difficult to calculate the total cost of government concessions granted to private developers that build in the Downtown Eastside. The $183-million Woodward's redevelopment — a four-tower project that promises to remake the western portion of the Downtown Eastside — will have 500 units priced at whatever the market dictates and 200 units of subsidized housing. The city compensated the developer with concessions worth millions of dollars for the public housing, heritage restoration and public amenities such as a daycare.

As well, the city has permits on its books for new projects worth $70-million in the Downtown Eastside. The list includes subsidized housing, market housing and renovations of an evening drop-in centre for prostitutes.

An expensive drug court that doesn't work

Like housing, law enforcement and courts for the Downtown Eastside have swallowed hundreds of millions of dollars.

Some costly judicial programs have not made a difference. One example: Vancouver's special court for drug cases, which has cost about $17-million to build and operate.

The city opened the court in 2001, embracing an idea pioneered in Toronto three years earlier. Judicial authorities hoped that the novel approach would help to combat substance abuse in the Downtown Eastside. The concept is simple: Judges offer less-severe penalties to addicts charged with narcotics crimes, provided they participate in a court-supervised, 265-hour treatment program. Also, as a condition of bail, the addicts must stay away from the neighbourhood.

The courtroom is located on the third floor of the Provincial Court building, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, and the atmosphere is anything but typical.

On a recent day, dozens of offenders who had already pleaded guilty filled the public gallery, listening as the names of the accused were read out. Each time somebody answered and approached the bench, the gallery broke into applause.

The judge was casual. "Hi, John," she would say. "How are you? What would like to talk about today." But this kinder, gentler approach hasn't kept the Downtown Eastside's addicts from reoffending. The court accepted 322 offenders from December, 2001, to March, 2005, according to an evaluation of the project done by Ottawa's ORBIS Partners Inc., and funded by the National Crime Prevention Strategy. Only 43 people — or 14 per cent — completed the treatment program.

The analysts compared the group with 166 offenders with addiction problems who did not go to drug court. Their evaluation found the new approach produced no statistically significant reductions in new charges and convictions.

Nevertheless, the drug court continues to run in Vancouver (with some changes to the treatment program) and the concept has been expanded to include a downtown community court for mentally ill people, which opened last fall in the Downtown Eastside. The new court process was expected to integrate health and social services into the justice system.

The construction budget for the new court was $5.6-million, and the cost of operating it in its first year is expected to be about $4.4-million.

Living free in the Downtown Eastside

Any calculation of money spent in the Downtown Eastside must include the incredible efforts of non-profit organizations and community groups that have stepped in to fill holes in the public safety net.

A directory of free services in the Downtown Eastside prepared for street people lists five shelters, seven locations for free clothing and six places for free meals. Free phones, free hair cuts, free dental work, laundry and showers are available.

At one such place, the three-storey Union Gospel Mission shelter, 76 people came for a free lunch one day last week. The menu featured smoky sausage soup, meat sandwiches, cupcakes and orange juice, and the line of mostly men in worn jackets and jeans wound down the street and around the corner.

At the door, a scruffy man who looked to be in his 20s mumbled to himself as he stood next to the front of the line. "His mind is gone," a mission worker said. "He just stands in the doorway."

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Speak your mind

With the 2010 Olympics coming to Vancouver, the eyes of the world will be on the city's Downtown Eastside. The millions poured into the neighbourhood seem to have had little impact on its squalor, its people or their problems with addiction. What should be done? Where would you start? How would you fix Canada's slum?

 
 

Public Forum:

On March 24 at 7 p.m. PT, The Globe, in partnership with CTV and the University of British Columbia, will bring together experts with fresh solutions for the Downtown Eastside at a public forum at UBC’s Robson Square campus.

 

For tickets, call toll-free 1-866-545-0016.
Update (March 6, 2009): Tickets are now SOLD OUT

 

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