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A comparison of key statistics in the DTES, Vancouver, B.C. and Canada

Globe and Mail Update


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VANCOUVER - The Downtown Eastside has well established credentials as the poorest of poor neighbourhoods, with a per capita income of less than half the nationwide average. But that statistic, if anything, understates the poverty of the area. Zero in on single people over 15 who live alone, and the income gap widens immensely. That group earns just $14,024 a year on average, but more than half comes from government transfer payments. Exclude those payments, and the average drops to just $6,282. For Canada as a whole, that same group earns more than $21,000.

It isn't hard to pinpoint the source of that low earning power. In the DTES, 38 per cent of residents (double the rate for the rest of the province) don't even have a high-school diploma, leaving them marooned from the modern economy for the most part. "We've basically got a Third World country stuck in the middle of downtown Vancouver," says Krishna Pendakur, a professor of economics at Simon Fraser University and co-director of Metropolis British Columbia.

Out of work: First, the good news. The unemployment rate on the Downtown Eastside is very low. At 5 per cent, that rate is not far out of step with the Vancouver, B.C. and national figures. But the more significant statistic is this: more than six out of 10 people in the DTES are not even part of the labour force, and are not counted in that seemingly low unemployment figure.

Add together the percentage of the population that works, and the proportion looking for work, and you have something called the participation rate, or roughly, those who are in some way taking part in economic life. In the DTES, that rate for those 15 years and older is just 38 per cent, not much more than half the rate in Vancouver (67 per cent), B.C. (66 per cent) and Canada (67 per cent.) Just one in three people in the DTES work, less than half the provincial and national averages. That kind of discrepancy points to a badly dysfunctional economy, says Mr. Pendakur, the economics professor. "This is worse than the Great Depression," he says.

One caveat. The official figures do not, of course, count employment in any illicit activities.


The face of the Downtown Eastside is, disproportionately, the face of aboriginal Canada. One-seventh of the area's population is aboriginal, seven times higher than for Vancouver as a whole. The discrepancy widens into a gulf if just registered Indians are counted. For Vancouver, status Indians account for just 1 per cent of the population; for B.C., 3 per cent; and for Canada, 2 per cent. But in the DTES, status Indians are 9 per cent of the population. "In some people's minds, it's the largest reserve in Canada," says John, O'Neil, dean of faculty health sciences at Simon Fraser University and a specialist in aboriginal health care.

Why the concentration of natives in the DTES? Raw economics certainly play a part — housing costs are much lower. But Mr. O'Neil says the draw of community is also a significant force; young natives moving from remote reserves are happy to find a familiar face, even if the surroundings are less than ideal.

Alone and childless

Life on the Downtown Eastside is a solitary, if not lonely, existence. The average household size is just 1.3 people, half that of Vancouver, B.C. and Canada as a whole. The gap stems from the overwhelming number of one-person households; 82 per cent of the population lives alone, which is triple the equivalent number elsewhere. And with that solitary status comes an obvious corollary: there are few children on the DTES. Children and teenagers make up just 7 per cent of the DTES, while in the country as a whole, that age cohort accounts for 25 per cent of the overall population. (However, those statistics might not fully take into account children who live apart from their DTES-residing parents.)

Stuck in the neighbourhood

At first glance, the Downtown Eastside looks to be an area with a huge turnover in its population, since 59 per cent of the population moved in the previous five years. That is considerably higher than the 46 per cent of overall Vancouver residents who moved, and also higher than the proportion of movers in British Columbia (45 per cent) and in Canada (39 per cent).

But look at where the residents of the DTES are moving, and a different — indeed, contrary — picture emerges. Migration within B.C. is actually lower than in Vancouver or the province as a whole. Interprovincial and external immigration is in line with other parts of the country.

What accounts for the high numbers of movers in the DTES? Something that Statistics Canada calls "non-migrant movers," in other words, people who move within a census metropolitan district (a major city). In the case of the Downtown East, any person that moved from one part of Vancouver to another -- or even would be counted as a non-migrant mover. And it is this category that is considerably higher in the DTES than elsewhere: 36 per cent, versus 23 per cent in Vancouver as a whole, 22 per cent in B.C. and 21 per cent in Canada.

It's not possible to tell from Statcan's data if residents are simply moving within the Downtown Eastside, but the numbers are certainly consistent with that possibility, Ms. Gurstein notes.

By the numbers

82: Percentage of Downtown Eastside residents living alone.

38: Percentage of residents without a high-school diploma

$14,024: Average annual income of residents who live alone.

$6,282: The average annual income, minus government subsidies.

60: Percentage of residents not considered participants in the labour force.

14: Percentage of area residents of aboriginal descent

7: Percentage of residents yet to reach the age of majority.

59: Percentage of residents who have moved in the past five years.

39: Percentage of Canadian residents who have moved in the past five years.


The demographic statistics we cite are drawn from the 2006 census, but we use specialized software to zero in on the Downtown Eastside.

Publicly available census numbers typically leave off at the census metropolitan area — essentially major cities in Canada. However, the information that Statistics Canada collects is broken down into much smaller geographical segments, called dissemination areas. That smaller unit can encompass anywhere between 125 and 375 housing units. For the 2006 census, there were more than 50,000 dissemination areas in Canada, compared with just 33 census metropolitan areas and 895 urban areas, a slightly more fine-grained measure.

The software, called PCensus from Tetrad Computer Applications in Vancouver, uses dissemination areas to provide a glimpse into the characteristics of a very small slice of the city Vancouver, just over 30 city blocks. And it allows for comparisons to other parts of Vancouver, British Columbia and Canada.

A final note

What is deemed to be the boundaries of the Downtown Eastside varies considerably. We opted for a relatively tight area, excluding the residential and commercial districts to the south of the core of the DTES.

In any discussion about the demographics of the Downtown Eastside, a big question looms — what about the homeless?

The short answer is that the homeless are indeed counted in the Statistics Canada census. But they are not counted as homeless.

Rosemary Bender, director general of social and demographic statistics at Statscan, says her agency takes tailored measures to count the itinerant population in Vancouver's poorest neighbourhood, who are not in line to receive the mailed census form. "We do want to count everybody in the country, and that certainly includes the homeless," she says.

Canvassers visit the hotels and shelters of the DTES, count couch-surfers and those otherwise seeking shelter with family and friends. And, come the night of the census, those canvassers make their way through the streets, searching for those who could not otherwise be counted.

The success rate is hard to specifically tally, Ms. Bender notes, since it is not possible to know who was not counted. But nationwide, she says, Statscan is confident that it counts at least 98 per cent of the population.There is one catch. The homeless are counted, but since homelessness is not part of the census, Statscan is unable to say how many of the homeless end up being counted.

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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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