VANCOUVER It has been nearly a decade since three levels of government signed a landmark agreement designed to transform Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside, but the neighbourhood remains a vortex that sucks in junkies, the mentally ill and other desperate souls from across the country.
With a year remaining in the agreement and the 2010 Olympics about to put Vancouver in the world's spotlight a Globe and Mail investigation has for the first time tallied how much public and private money has been poured into Canada's worst slum.
The result: More than $1.4-billion later, the Downtown Eastside is hardly better off.
An open-air drug market still thrives five minutes from a police station. The bathrooms of decrepit hotels still serve as shooting galleries for addicts. Prostitutes still offer their bodies from the curbside. Drug pushers still prey on the mentally diminished, multiplying the misery.
If there has been progress, it has been scant. The rash of drug overdoses that killed more than 1,000 people in the 1990s has dissipated, but the legion of addicts remains. HIV/AIDS is no longer epidemic, but residents' health remains abysmal.
Even the politicians who were behind the Vancouver Agreement concede defeat.
"I've worked in the Downtown Eastside for a long time, since before I got into politics, and I have never seen our community this bad," says Jenny Kwan, the NDP cabinet minister who led the province's involvement in the agreement, signed in 2000.
"I can say that honestly, politics aside, I have never seen such desperation on the streets. I walk down there in the early hours, I go down to the community, and I am literally stepping over bodies."
Spending on the Downtown Eastside is "mind-boggling," says former Vancouver mayor Philip Owen, another signatory to the agreement.
Mr. Owen says that until now he has had no firm idea of just how much money has gone into the Downtown Eastside.
That is because nobody has been keeping track.
The federal, provincial and municipal governments, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and more than 100 organizations working in the neighbourhood record their own spending, but none keeps a global tally. The Vancouver police department, meanwhile, won't release its budget for patrolling the Downtown Eastside.
"No one seems to have a handle on it," says Bernie Magnan, the Vancouver Board of Trade's chief economist. "We've tried several times to get it, but we cannot seem to nail down what actually goes in there."
By conducting interviews, reviewing public documents and asking groups to summarize their spending, The Globe reached a conservative estimate for health, social services, housing, law enforcement and other public services.
The grand total: At least $1,468,154,865 since the Vancouver Agreement was signed, with roughly $717.5-million spent on health and social services, $348.6-million on housing, $154.5-million on safety and justice, $230-million on economic development and $16.8-million on services that bridged those classifications.
Reaching the total was more art than science. Wherever possible, The Globe used actual spending figures, but in some cases relied on promises of spending or estimates where precise figures weren't available. The calculations include some projects and services outside the Downtown Eastside because the boundaries of the neighbourhood are fluid and some of the projects aimed at the neighbourhood's residents are located outside it.
The flood of spending has been concentrated mostly in a few squalid blocks home to about 6,000 men and women; a huge chunk has gone to about 2,100 people in crisis, health authorities say.
So why has $1.4-billion made so little difference to this relatively small population? Where did the money go?
One room for the homeless: $326,484
To help solve the puzzle of how so much money has been spent on housing in the Downtown Eastside, consider the case of the Pennsylvania Hotel.
The historic five-storey structure, built in 1906 and designed by renowned local architect William Tuff Whiteway, is located on the edge of the most desolate stretch of Hastings Street, the main drag. By 2000, the once-stylish, turret-topped building was a flophouse, its 165-seat pub a drug den.
The city, provincial and federal governments worked together to restore the heritage landmark, replacing the pub with a restaurant and reconfiguring the living space into 44 units for the homeless. The antiquated structure had to be brought up to current seismic and building codes.
The province contributed $4.6-million from its housing budget and agreed to pay $341,710 annually for health workers and counsellors who work there. Ottawa contributed $4-million. The regional and city government paid an additional $2.15-million.
Developer Concord Pacific contributed $3.6-million in exchange for transfer of density to another property.
In total, it cost $14.4-million to reopen the hotel recently. That works out to $326,484 per suite, for about 250 square feet of living space, including a bathroom and kitchenette.
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."
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.