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The democratic solution

Community organizer Jim Green believes in a women-and-children-first fix for the Downtown Eastside. 'By building housing that has mothers and children reintegrating back into society, by democratizing the processes in the community - that's how we are going to move forward.'

From Monday's Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER — Jim Green is a U.S.-born community organizer who has lived in the Downtown Eastside since 1971. He has been active in politics, serving one term on Vancouver City Council. He has also run unsuccessfully for mayor and as a NDP candidate in the 1996 provincial election. He has worked as a provincial bureaucrat in housing, the arts, culture and women's equality. He was chairman of the Four Corners Community Savings, a government-subsidized community bank in the heart of the Downtown Eastside from 1996 to 2003. He has been instrumental in the redevelopment of Woodward's and in development of several social housing projects in the area. As an adjunct professor of anthropology, he has taught at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. He currently works as a consultant for developers and non-profit community groups.

Tell me about the first time you saw the Downtown Eastside. What surprised you?

In 1968, I bought poison ivy lotion at the Woodward's department store for a camping trip. I had just come from the Lower East Side of New York. What struck me was here was another neighbourhood of primarily single, elderly men, in various stages of poverty. New York at that time was an extremely violent place and I did not feel that in the Downtown Eastside at all. The Downtown Eastside had the same problems of alcoholism, poverty and housing, similar to the Lower East Side of New York, but there was more a feeling that it was not dangerous. I was not naive, but it just was a different feel about it.

What is at the root of the problems plaguing the Downtown Eastside?

The number one problem is poverty. Then there were really, really awful public policies: deinstitutionalizing [of the mentally ill], moving families out of the area, taking out single-family homes. They consciously made this into a place to put people and forget about them.

Why has a decade of heavy spending by government failed to fix the problems?

I'm not sure problems such as this are just fixed. There has to be a whole lot of things that take place to overcome the bad public policies that created this. What did they do after the deinstitutionalization? The mentally ill came into contact with - I remember in 1980, a woman was released from Riverview. Her entire life, she had never lived independently. She was taken to Main and Hastings, given a handful of money and told good bye. She was raped, her money taken within a couple of hours and she was beaten almost to death.

Much of the government money spent in the Downtown Eastside has done a fabulous job. If you look at some of the housing here that was not here before, look at Insite [the supervised injection centre], the Bladerunners [employment] program for street youth, it is so absolutely successful. It's mind-blowing. I don't believe that all the money has been wasted. Look at the Carnegie Centre. It is fabulous.

There are other issues, organizations that do not work, turf wars, inadequate funding.

What must be done to fix the Downtown Eastside?

I really don't like the word "fix." What needs to be done? First, there needs to be a democratic voice for the people that live here and that voice needs to be a grass-roots voice. A lot of people argue for more welfare money - people do not get enough on welfare to live on. However, no matter how much money you give people on welfare, you are keeping them in a state of utter dependency. I think people have to break out of this. For people to be citizens rather than subjects, you have to [offer] education, employment, housing and treatment opportunities. [People in the Downtown Eastside] have to get out of chemical dependency and government dependency. Until that happens, the neighbourhood will not improve significantly.

What must be avoided?

[You have to avoid] doing more of the same that does not work, putting up government agencies that don't work and bringing money into the wrong place. [You have to] listen to the needs to the people. I don't know how many times people have come down and set up computer labs. Those are needed, but at a certain point, you have to say, wait a minute. Isn't there something else?

Do you think the Olympics will have a positive or negative impact on the Downtown Eastside? Why?

Olympics will have both a positive and negative impact. The positive thing is that people of the world will see Vancouver in a different light than they do now. They will see the problem. Our city council has said absolutely there will be no sweeps to try to get [people who live in the Downtown Eastside] out of view of the people who come to the Olympics. And Downtown Eastsiders are going to be vocal about their issues. I am sure of that. [The Olympics] is going to give us much more incentive to make the Downtown Eastside a much better community.

Some changes have already happened. The province purchased over 20 hotels in the Downtown Eastside and that would not have happened without the Olympics. Now [the hotels] are properly run and people do not get evicted for no reason. That is from the Olympics. Also, we got 200 units of social housing in the Woodward's development in part as a result of a deal I made with the Olympics [Organizing Committee] and the province.

How can your area of expertise help to fix the Downtown Eastside?

As a community developer, first, you have to understand clearly the people you are working with. You have to have the attitude that people are citizens and they are not target populations, as the government says. I think that makes a huge difference. And you have to have a lot of skills to do this stuff. I have to know virtually everything there is to know about real estate, about housing development or mega-project development. I have to know how governments work, inside and out. Everyday, I find out something else I have to learn about.

Some people come and when I hear these words - all you have to do - then I know we are in trouble, because it is a difficult, difficult job to do. Anyone who is trying to do it and has their heart in it, I totally support it.

If we follow your proposals, what will the Downtown Eastside look like in 10 years?

I have had a theory for a long time, that women and children are what gives strength and security to any community. A community that is overwhelmingly single males is going to be really difficult to build, to go forward. By building housing that has mothers and children reintegrating back into society, by democratizing the processes in the community - that's how we are going to move forward. Just doing that makes it a better community, makes it safer.



In this series The Globe and Mail introduces four experts who lay out fresh solutions for the Downtown Eastside.

On March 24 at 7 p.m. (PT), The Globe, in partnership with CTV and the University of British Columbia, will bring together the experts and Globe columnist Gary Mason for a public forum at UBC's Robson Square campus, hosted by CTV's Mi-Jung Lee. For tickets, visit

Ahead in the series

March 9:

The education solution

The Globe's Wendy Stueck talks to Margo Fryer, founding director of the UBC Learning Exchange, a storefront education program based in the Downtown Eastside.

March 10:

An online discussion with Ms. Fryer at 1 p.m. (PT).

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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


Online Discussions

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