The housing and support programs for Vancouver's Downtown Eastside mentioned obliquely in Monday's Throne Speech and yesterday's budget in British Columbia are a step in the right direction for a neighbourhood that has soaked up lots of good intentions and money over the past decade without making much progress. The Olympics are an opportunity to bring renewed energy, investment and a long-term approach to ameliorating life in Canada's most densely populated urban slum.
Governments and civil society should aim high. The aim should be to supply adequate housing to those who are homeless, or clinging to a small single room in a flophouse hotel. They may need emotional and other personal supports, as well as a roof over their heads. That is what Premier Gordon Campbell appears to be after when he proposes to borrow from Victoria's Assertive Community Treatment teams, which send social workers out to help those hardest to house.
Nine years ago, three levels of government committed themselves to turning the neighbourhood around; today, addicts continue to walk the streets dazedly, and much remains to be done. Still, there are some hopeful signs of a more diverse community emerging. Roughly $70-million worth of building projects is slated for the neighbourhood, including subsidized and market housing. An old department store on Hastings Street is being converted into condominiums, and 356 units were sold in one day. Bob Rennie, a Vancouver developer, says the city's main option for growth is eastward.
There is no short-term solution to the woes of a neighbourhood described as “the poorest postal code in Canada.” Its average household income for residents living alone is $14,024, and the vast majority do live alone; that contrasts with a median family income of $64,332 in the city as a whole in 2005. A survey of 1,000 drug users who use a neighbourhood clinic found they had been injecting drugs an average of 15 years. Eighty per cent had been incarcerated, 38 per cent had worked as prostitutes, and 17 per cent had HIV. The needs are many, and desperate.
Innovating in social policy, and borrowing from the best approaches in Canada and elsewhere, are crucial. Not every innovation works, as reported in Saturday's Globe and Mail. For instance, a drug court opened in 2001 offers reduced penalties to those who accept a court-supervised treatment program; just 14 per cent of offenders in the program in its first four years completed the treatment. The renovation of a historic five-storey hotel – to create housing for the poor – somehow cost an average of $326,484 for each of its 44 rooms of 250 square feet. Job-creation programs have not created as many jobs as expected. Still, there have been some successes: an epidemic of HIV, and of drug-overdose deaths, has passed.
The Olympics are a year away, and the blight of the Downtown Eastside will not be washed away as if it were graffiti, or walled off, as in Beijing. Time is short, and provincial leadership and financial support would make a difference.