Skip navigation

Jim Green: The democratic solution

Globe and Mail Update

Nearly $1.5-billion in public spending since 2000 and little to show for it — that's the story of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The Globe is pleased to introduce four experts who will lay out fresh solutions for the neighbourhood. Each will join us online to take your questions and participate in a live panel discussion March 24 at the University of British Columbia.

The forum will be hosted at 7 p.m. (10 p.m. ET) at UBC's Robson Square campus by The Globe, in partnership with CTV and the university. For tickets, call toll-free 1-866-545-0016.

Jim Green is a former city councillor and co-founder of the Portland Hotel Society, founder of the Downtown Eastside's controversial safe injection site. Among his proposals is a women-and-children-first fix for the Downtown Eastside.

Mr. Green will answer your questions live Tues., March 3 at 1 p.m. PT (4 p.m. ET). Send a question now through our comment function, then check back here March 3 to see Mr. Green's responses.

Editor's Note: editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length or clarity. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Darren Yourk, editor, Thanks for joining us this afternoon Mr. Green. We've had a big response for this discussion, so let's get right to our reader questions.

Thomson Gary from Canada writes: Mr. Green uses the term 'democratizing' an awful lot. I'd like to know, in practical terms, what he means and how he supposes this will help the people of the Downtown Eastside.

Jim Green: By democratization, I mean a system of governance that is powered by the people of the Downtown Eastside. Historically, decisions relating to the lives of Downtown Eastsiders have been made by Federal, Provincial and Municipal Governments, planners, and church groups, whereas the people that are affected by these decisions or policies that are created, have no voice. This is one of the main reasons that funding to improve the community often is inappropriate or wasteful. The people who are considered the target population are the ones who know the most about the situations and have the best ways of determining their exit strategy from poverty and other conditions that keep them in a state of dependency.

Helen McKenzie from Thunder Bay writes: How likely is it that any social programs aimed at the DTES will receive funding from the present federal Conservative government?

Jim Green: It is very unlikely, and this a real problem, since conservative policies continue to play havoc with the Downtown Eastside. The Federal Liberals began the dismantling of social housing programs, and they were completely put to death by Brian Mulroney's Conservative Party. On the Provincial level, it was primarily Conservative governments that eliminated provincial support for housing programs. You may know, Helene, that we have a safe injection site in Vancouver — the only one in North America — which the Federal Conservatives are threatening to kill off, even though we know that the safe injection site has saved numerous lives, and led many, many people to the treatment and support that they need. It is ironic that we have the only safe injection site, and historically, the US Drug Czar has tried to get it closed down. Thanks to President Obama, it looks like there may be a change in Order. President Obama has nominated the Chief of Police of Seattle, Washington, as the new Drug Czar, and e is a supporter of safe injection sites, and legalizing marijuana. The American Republicans may be able to stop his appointment — let's hope not because this is a new day.

Russell Mawby from Canada writes: Jim, I'd like you to comment on the 'neighbourhood czar' approach proposed in this series. My comment is that, in theory, this is a good approach because for once it might bring a broader systems approach to the issue, given that one way of understanding homelessness is as a systems failure. Many of the people who drift through the East Side have literally fallen between the cracks of systems that continue a) treat symptoms rather than causes and b) tackle problems in silos - 'mental health', 'crime', 'housing', etc. If in fact one person, or at least their office, can start to join up the solutions, what do you think are the key factors needed to make that approach a success?

Jim Green: I am really not sure that will be an advantage to the neighbourhood. Firstly, I think a co-ordination system really needs to be in place, but in looking at the current situation of the Vancouver Agreement which has the three levels of government working together — and is virtually stagnated — makes me wonder how putting another layer of authority in the community would work. I also believe that if someone was appointed, that they would somehow have to have mass support from the existing organizations in the community, and there are about 200 of these. If a new overseer does not have virtually unanimous approval, it could start real turf wars in the community that would lead to a negative situation. However, it is not impossible. When I first worked on the Woodward's project, which is the largest single site project in Vancouver, with 200 units of social housing, 500 units of market, Simon Fraser School for the Contemporary Arts, etc., we were able to bring many groups together who had very serious issues with one another. What we did agree upon is that we would take a vow that in our support of Woodward's we would not let any of these issues interfere with that project. This is one of the reasons that the Woodward's project has succeeded. The short answer is, I think it could be a valuable position but it is one that could also cause great problems in an already vulnerable neighbourhood.

Jessica P. from Canada writes: Do you think that the gentrification of the downtown eastide is contributing to the housing and drug crisis in this neighbourhood? If so, what actions do you think local organizations, the city, and the government can take to protect and assist this vulnerable group of citizens?

Jim Green writes: Gentrification in many respects is the number one threat to low income communities By this I mean gentrification that replaces residents with a high-income group. We have seen this model consciously carried out by the Provincial Government during Expo 1986, which the neighbourhood has never been able to spring back from. Thousands were displaced because there was no support from Government in the Downtown Eastside. Today the situation is different and better. Developers are now offering to incorporate social housing into local developments and to hire local people. These are certainly steps in the right direction as this type of development is not gentrification by my definition, but reciprocal in nature. Also, what we did not have during Expo 1986 is a Municipal single room accommodation by-law, which I was able to get passed when I was a councillor which protects residents from eviction without cause, and hotel residents are now covered by the residential tenancy act and have virtually the same rights as any other tenant in the Province. The landlords most prone to eviction are those who run the Single Room Accommodation (SRA). The provincial government has recently purchased 20 of these SRA's which amounts to about 1500 units. This does not create new social housing, but it offers protection to the most vulnerable group in our society. In short, gentrification does not have to be the enemy. It can be used as a tool to provide extra government funded social housing.

Christopher Spencer from Edmonton Canada writes: There is a lot of pressure on established communities to embrace densification projects. How important is it to ensure new housing suits 'women and children' as a way of preventing future decline? Mostly developers want to build apartments and condos with one bedroom, not that practical for families.

Jim Green: Densification is a very important tool for building communities. We can no longer afford urban sprawl and it is also in my opinion, the enemy of community stability. You are absolutely right that there needs to be a way to ensure that women and children are housed in new developments, and certain arrangements, or even by-laws could be in place that require a certain percentage of any new development to be dedicated to families. In addition, developers could be rewarded with more density if they were to build low income housing targeted at families. To make sure this is done properly, there needs to be a non-government, community-based watchdog.

KL from Montreal Canada writes: Hello Mr. Green, What are your thoughts on DTES evictions from SRO dwellings during the 2010 games. Are you concerned tenants will forced on to the streets like they were in 1986?

Jim Green: Expo 1986 was a disaster for the Downtown Eastside. It cost community stability and human lives. Many of the support networks that low income people relied on were destroyed in 1986 and have yet to be rebuilt. I am not concerned about evictions in the Downtown Eastside this time around as Provincial and Municipal governments are very aware that this will not be tolerated by Vancouverites. In addition, the Provincial Government has put purchased 20 Single Room Accommodation hotels, which is a great step forward in protecting the residents. When I was a councillor, I introduced a Single Room Accommodation (SRA) by-law which protects residents of SRA's from unjust evictions. Unlike Expo 1986, the Residential Tenancy Act also applies to SRA residents and this is further protection. What I am concerned about however, is tenants that live in apartment being evicted for the conversion of apartments to condominiums. This is happening in Vancouver's West End. Whether this is related to the Olympics is hard to tell.

Ray Argyle from Toronto writes: In all the dismal news about the Downtown East Side, what role do you see for the private sector in redevelopment, and do you see any glimmer of hope for the district and its residents?

Jim Green: First of all, I see more than a glimmer of hope. The Olympics will bring the issue of the Downtown Eastside to the entire world, and I believe that is going to stimulate more action to deal properly with the issues of the Downtown Eastside. The private sector can play a great role in positive redevelopment of the community. Many construction companies in Vancouver now use the BladeRunners program in construction. That program is one that I started in 1992 which trains and hires street involved youth in pre-apprenticeships in the construction industry. Several thousand young people have gone through this program and the statistics show that 95% of the youth are Aboriginal, 25% female, and 85% have never returned to government for support. This shows the vast amount of talent we have in the community, and what the private sector can do, at no added cost to them in working on low cost employment programs. The Woodward's Redevelopment project in downtown Vancouver, will be completed in May of this year and it is the model that I believe is the future of proper development in Canadian inner-cities. The City of Vancouver website: outlines the history of this amazing project, and how it works. It has Social Housing, it uses the BladeRunner program for construction, and plans are under way to train residents in retail, maintenance, landscaping, and hospitality to ensure that the project is completely inclusive. This is the light at the end of the tunnel.

Gary Croome from Canada writes: from Canada writes: In a society that wants 'quick fixes' to most any issue, how can we respond to the general public with the hope that they may understand the complexity of the problem, and that it involves much more than the DTES? How can we gain support, to pressure our politicians and stress to them that across the country, we need to support initiatives such as INSITE, the 'women-and-children-first' approach to housing or other mental health support programs.

Jim Green: Hopefully, the amount of media attention the DTES is getting will assist the public in understanding the complexity of these issues. One of the biggest barriers to improving these communities is the societal attitude towards the residents. For instance people do not "choose" to sleep outside. They do not take an oath of poverty. People do want to work. Society often makes distinctions between the deserving and non deserving poor. Some charities that operate in the community because of their religious values, do not have anti-aids programs, such as distribution of condoms. This type of thinking, works to imprison low-income residents. A major, major factor in the liberation from dependency and altering the negative views of the community must come from the low-income residents themselves. In order to have the capacity to do this, residents must have access to arts, culture and education, in addition to healthcare, housing, food and clothing. There is an article that has influenced my ideas on this liberation — by Earl Shorris, Editor of Harpers Magazine. It is called "In the Hands of the Restless Poor." We have used his ideas to create a program called Humanities 101 at the University of B.C. The results have been outstanding. I have invited the Humanities 101 students, who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, to be part of my Urban Anthropology Undergraduate and Graduate Courses and they have been incredible students and have gone on to work not only to improve their own lives but the lives of others who come from similar backgrounds.

John Ryckman from Canada writes: How are policies that seem to entrench poverty in a 'Zone' within the city ever going to solve this problem. The downtown eastside is a trap and it seems that maintaining the existing community will do nothing but perpetuate the situation. Why not Gentrification?

Jim Green: First of all, the Downtown Eastside is a low income community for several reasons. The first is the nature of our resource economy in BC, which means that since the early 1900's, our economy depended on loggers, miners, fishers and longshoremen and shipyard workers. These were primarily single men and many of them were out of town working in these industries and would return from time to time depending on the industry. What grew up was a series of residential hotels that we now refer to as Single Room Accommodation (SRA's) which housed this working population. That created a low income housing stock that we still depend on to this day. Governments produced public policies that enshrine this as a low income community for primarily single males. Family housing was torn down for new SRA's and women and children were directed to the suburbs. At the same time, this policy, known as Containment also put the services for low income people in this community and also made it the playground for the entire region. The liquor stores catered to very poor quality wines aimed at alcoholics, prostitution was allowed and at one time, 83% of the licensed seating was in the Downtown Eastside. These uses would not be tolerated in other communities. Part of this policy also included a model of "outside governance". It was the policy of Vancouver City Council that non profits have boards made up of residents from other communities. We are now trying to deal with these issues. Most Governments now see that concentration was a failure, and that we need to put services in all communities so that people can get what they need where they are as opposed to migrating to the Downtown Eastside. If by gentrification you mean bringing in high income residents to displace low income residents, I would argue that would cause incredible damage not only to the Downtown Eastside but other communities where people would be pushed in to. The positive part of the Downtown Eastside is that people have networks of survival and it is a community that is embracing of all people, better than any community I have ever seen. The residents need to chart their exit models and have the power to ensure that these go forward. What I do welcome is what I call "reciprocal development" and this means development that houses other income brackets, as long as it includes local residents and provides other amenities, such as local employment and inclusion. An example of this is Woodward's redevelopment project which is explained on the City of Vancouver website:

Heather MacAndrew from Victoria Canada writes: I have two questions for Jim: 1. Twelve years ago you took me on a little tour of the DES and we talked about 'community' You pointed out to me things like the 4 Sisters Housing Co-op, Bruce Eriksson Place and other examples of places where a mix of people were finding community. There was alcoholism and drug abuse but crack and crystal meth had not yet enveloped so many. In 12 years it seems there are more people on the streets of the DES, many of them badly addicted and barely able to function. Have you seen a change in the DES in the past dozen years and if so, what, in your view has caused or contributed to the more visibly desperate state of humanity there? 2. Could you elaborate on your idea of 'women and children first'? Is it partly Jane Jacobs's idea of 'eyes on the street' and partly that people will help make a community safe if children are a visible part of the mix?

Jim Green: 1. Since I took you on the tour 12 years ago, there have been new issues and some victories. For instance, community groups led by a woman, were able to eliminate the sale of cooking wine, which was killing many people. The use of Lysol as a drug has disappeared. There has been more housing built, and more women and children moving into the community. We have been inundated with drugs that are very harmful and difficult to deal with, as you say. These are vicious drugs that are peddled by people who have no concern for the lives of others. These people are usually not residents of the community but come in to prey on the vulnerable in the community. I don't know how we are going to resolve this issue but we must.

2. You are right Heather, that some of the ideas about Women and Children as the safeguards of community life do come from Jane Jacobs, but it's more than that. If there is a single male that finds a community undesirable, they have an option of packing up and leaving. Women with children usually would not seek that option because of schools, friends and support from other women in their neighbourhood. The 4 Sisters is a great example where the women in that co-op set up their own systems of child care and many were able, because of stable housing and those support networks, to leave the dependence of welfare and enter the work force, many for the first time in their lives. It is the stabilization factor that I believe to be so important. Also I found that single men living in housing that also houses families, are often much more careful about their own behaviour because of the presence of women and children. It is an overall necessity that a community that is still around 80% single males, reintroduces women and children. I also believe that women and children are a major force in dealing with drug related issues. They do not want their children going by areas where drug deals are taking place, or violent relations between drug dealers are being played out on the streets. They will work very hard to make sure these issues are dealt with to protect their children. This is not to say that men would not do the same thing for their children, and single men often times become soldiers in the war against these negative impacts because of the leadership of women.

Darren Yourk, editor, That's all the time we have today. Thanks to Mr. Green for spening the hour with us, and thanks to readers for sending in questions.

Recommend this article? 12 votes

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


Online Discussions

Back to top