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The money pit

Continued from Page 2

The Union Gospel Mission offers more than meals. The facility sleeps 40, and offers free clothes, toothbrushes, soap, razors, counselling and courses to complete high school.

"Everything is for free," said Keela Keeping, a spokeswoman for the mission. "But it is not really attractive. It would only appeal to people who really need it."

The Union Gospel Mission, which run two additional sites in the Downtown Eastside, receives no government funds. Corporate sponsors such as Telus Corp. provide volunteers and cash.

Other groups depend heavily on government support. Some groups, such as the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society (DEYAS), receive almost 100 per cent of their funding from the government. No one calculates how much has been spent over the decade on those services.

And yet, after all that investment in health, safety and housing, more is required to turn the Downtown Eastside into a community just like any other in Vancouver. Considerable effort has gone into trying to re-establish businesses, provide job training for residents and brighten up the neighbourhood.

The city has kicked in $400,000 to match some of the projects financed under a $10-million provincial government grant for neighbourhood improvements, such as new awnings on buildings, new neon signs and cleaning up graffiti.

The city also made an effort to provide job training with a program of temporary work for eight people in recovery from drug use. Four went on to full-time employment. The budget for the program was $163,000.

Projects under the Vancouver Agreement are among the more aggressive attempts to change the social and economic realities in the community. The governments put $6.9-million into creating an organization to develop business in the area and help find work opportunities for residents. Building Opportunities with Business Inner City Society, better known as BOB, has achieved small victories for several people, but it has not succeeded in remaking the neighbourhood.

The agency had played a role in the purchase of $25-million worth of goods and services from suppliers in the Downtown Eastside and adjacent neighbourhoods. BOB was also involved in arrangements leading to jobs for 102 residents. But it was set up with ambitions of helping find work for many more people.

Meanwhile, government spending on social assistance rivals spending on health and housing. About 73 per cent of the 7,100 people on welfare who live in what the province considers to be the Downtown Eastside receive payment at the highest level possible. The province is paying out $70-million in this year alone. An additional $9.7-million was spent this year on help for families and children in the neighbourhood. The cash injected over the decade amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Although some believe that the Downtown Eastside is worse off now than it was a decade ago, others see progress.

Donald MacPherson, Vancouver's drug policy co-ordinator, recalls the tragic rash of overdose deaths in the 1990s. "Around 200 people died in 1993, another 200 in 1998," he said. "People were also dying of HIV at an incredible rate. There was a sense of despair on the street."

While the debate raged over the appropriate response to the urban crisis, money began to flow. At least $300-million has been spent since 2000 by the health authorities in the Downtown Eastside. More than half of the funds have gone to services and housing supports for addicts and the mentally ill. A supervised injection site, an experiment with heroin distribution and support for abstinence-based treatment brought in $31-million more.

The government also has committed funds for services for the mentally ill and addicted that are located outside the neighbourhood. In the past few years, new drug-treatment centres and institutional care for the mentally ill worth $41-million have been unveiled.

Working together under the Vancouver Agreement, the three levels of government contributed $300,000 toward a $6.5-million drug-treatment centre called The Crossing at Keremeos, which has opened in the B.C. interior and is expected to cost $2.4-million to operate in its first year.

The facility is located 350 kilometres to the east, but the Downtown Eastside is more than just a local problem, says Christine Lattey, executive director of the Vancouver Agreement's co-ordination unit. "It's a B.C. and a Canada problem."

"If you look at the Downtown Eastside, you can provide services for people who are there," she explains. "But you also have to look at how you prevent people from getting there in the first place."

According to Ms. Lattey, the Crossing at Keremeos can do just that — and is an example of how spending under the Vancouver Agreement and other programs has helped to improve situation. But it clearly hasn't helped enough.

"You just need to walk down there to see there is a lot that has not been done."

Robert Matas is a member of The Globe and Mail's Vancouver bureau.

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Return to Canada’s Slum:The Fix

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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