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Housing for teen girls in DTES becomes newest political battle

August 26th, 2011 · 104 Comments

The Downtown Eastside has become a traditional battleground in Vancouver’s civic campaigns in recent years. Strategists from both sides know that city residents are deeply ashamed of the unsolved social problems in this part of the city and look to any political leader who appears willing to champion a solution.

This year’s round has kicked off with the NPA and its candidates, in mysteriously similar tweets, linking to a story by Mark Hasiuk in the Courier about a new, 14-room facility in the Downtown Eastside meant to house young girls who are vulnerable to exploitation but refuse to leave the area. (Mark’s article here and I am attaching the response below from Janice Abbott, whose Atira Women’s Resource Society is operating the building.)

Their lead-in to the topic?: Neighborhood of pimps, dealers, needles and violence – would you want your daughter here? NPA candidate Mike Klassen went a step further and said there was a neighbourhood backlash to a proposal to put “teens in containers,” apparently mixing up two different projects.

Vision’s Geoff Meggs then went on the counter-offensive and, in an interesting display of the way Twitter is becoming the new assignment desk, several media outlets reported that the NPA were being criticized for labelling the Downtown Eastside as a nieghbourhood of pimps, dealers and violence. Clearly a strategy aimed at reprising the successful tactic of the 2002 campaign, when then NPA mayoral candidate Jennifer Clarke got dumped on big-time for calling the DTES a ghetto.

This whole back and forth is dismaying on several levels. That the NPA would make part of its campaign strategy to go after a housing group (seems to be part of a general pattern lately, where they seem to be campaigning against police chief Jim Chu and the Vancouver Public Space Network as well, rather than against Vision Vancouver). That Vision would rally the troops by falling back on the old chestnut that the NPA doesn’t care about the DTES.

And finally, that we are in yet another tiresome round of bashing the latest housing group in the DTES that is perceived as too left or compromised or whatever.

There’s a media tradition of going after these groups. For a longtime, it was the Downtown Eastside Residents Association. Then it was the Portland Hotel Society. Now it’s Atira. Everyone loves to come out of the woodwork and call them poverty pimps who are exploiting the poor and perpetuating misery to protect their own jobs.

Funny, though, how no one ever goes after the other groups in the Downtown Eastside who are also down there providing similar services. (In fact, the same day that the NPA was tweeting out about the horrors of young girls being kept in the DTES, mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton sent out a tweet about her “good tour” of the no-rules-shelter at First United Church — a place where there have been complaints that girls as young as 13 are being allowed to stay overnight, in spite of concerns from neighbourhood groups about their safety, given some of the problems last winter with sexual assaults.)

Every year, I get students in my journalism research class to look at Revenue Canada’s records for charities, plus records of payments from Vancouver Coastal Health and the provincial government’s public accounts, to see what kind of money DTES housing groups get (and who they are).

I won’t bore you with all of the numbers from all of the sources, but these quick numbers from the CRA’s 2010 records, where charities/housing groups have to list the money they get from federal, provincial and regional government sources, will just give you an indication of who is down there and what kind of money they are getting. I haven’t included what they get from charitable donations, though it’s pretty low for most of them except for Union Gospel and the Salvation Army.

Atira: $7.9 million

Lookout Emergency: 12.4 million

PHS (Portland Hotel Society): $13.1 million

Raincity Housing (the group that has been operating many of the city’s temporary winter shelters): $10.3 million

St. James Community Society: $11.5 million

Salvation Army (Belkin House, Grace Mansion and Harbour Light): $10.8 million

Union Gospel Mission and Foundation: $4.5 million

Strange how no one ever goes after the Salvation Army for running a recovery facility in the middle of the Downtown Eastside (Harbour Light) or St. James for opening a shelter for women and children there.

I’ve visited all of these groups and their facilities at one time or another and been impressed with the work they do. It’s a tough job, because it’s hard to watch people slide back and forth into drug use, alcoholism and whatever they do to support those habits without getting frustrated. The clients of those agencies are often the first to criticize the people helping them. And there’s an awful lot of territorial politicking, as different DTES agencies go after others at different times. (And, usually, the one to get attacked the most is the one that is growing and taking on new services.)

Not very many people writing about the DTES take the trouble to explain that. It’s much easier to play on the fears of the general public, who don’t generally know much about the Downtown Eastside and what all is going on down there, by conveying the impression that it’s just a bunch of radical, bleeding-heart organizations who are down there, encouraging people to keep taking drugs and pimping themselves.

I’ll end by attaching the reponse that was sent out by Janice Abbott of Atira this morning to big list of people, including the NPA’s Suzanne Anton.

Hi there.

I am writing, again, in the hopes of clearing up mis-information being circulated about Imouto, as well as to invite you to contact me or any one of the advisory committee members for more information. Alternatively or additionally, I am confident you could attend the next RICHER meeting, which is being held at 9 a.m. on Thursday, September 15th at #308 – 877 East Hastings Street. Michelle Fortin, several other partners/members of the advisory committee and I will be there to talk about Imouto. Imouto is the result of a conversation between me and Michelle Fortin, which happened in the spring of 2009. Michelle came to see me about setting aside some units at The Rice Block for young women Watari is working with, who despite the availablity of rent supplements and support, will not leave the DTES. After a brief conversation, we both agreed housing young women with older women is not a good idea and could put young women further at risk. Several weeks later, Imouto (The International Inn) became available for purchase. At 18 units, it is the perfect size for a project like this and met the needs of Watari and as we soon discovered, other youth serving agencies who were having similar difficulty with a small group of young women who will not leave this neighbourhood.Youth workers involved with the project have been excited mostly about the prospect of being able to “find” the young women they are working with rather than spend upwards of half of their shifts scouring DTES hotels, shelters, parks and drop in centres, trying to connect and provide services. Imouto is a two-year project, funded by the Vancover Foundation, with a substantial evaluation component, which will be conducted by an independent evaluator and guided by both the UBC & UVic Schools of Social Work, as well as by the young women who live at Imouto. It is anticipated young women will stay at Imouto for up to 12 months, during which time partner agencies will work to connect them with resources outside the neighbourhood, including housing, treatment, mental health supports, trauma counselling, etc. and where safe, re-connect them with their families. If after two years there are no more young women living in the DTES, which every single person involved with Imouto would be delighted to discover, the building will be re-purposed for adult women.  Every single woman and man involved with Imouto cares deeply for the young women who are currently living in the DTES and through their involvement in this project hope to be able to provide the young women living at Imouto with an opportunity to explore options many never knew were available to them. We hope to provide young women with some insight into what their lives could be, before they become entrenched in the DTES culture and forget they are/were kids and have lives full of promise and hope before them.  Again, I invite you to contact me or any one of the advisory committee members or partner agencies for more information or to raise your concerns directly, or to attend the RICHER meeting on September 15th. Thank you..  Janice

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  • Historically the DTES evolved from Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood into our version of Skidrow in the 60′s, and because of a series of dedicated advocates in the 70′s and 80′s it became a political hot potato. These advocates forcefully argued that this neighbourhood should provide the majority of social housing

    Bill McCreery 99

    The history is important. I ask the question vis-a-vis the Downtown East Side… East of where?

    This place is east of the CPR Land Grant. That’s how the first ‘political hot potato’ got heated up in the first place. Overnight, the CPR was the new Sheriff in town and they played the role of a property developer—rather than the railway company—with great skill.

    Eighty years later a Tower Plan was hatched to wipe out ‘Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood’. Today, there are two “McClean Parks” in Strathcona… the original park itself—a thriving oasis of urban life—and the CMHC housing monstrosity from the 1960’s.

    The push in the 1970’s, 1980’s… and I would argue into our decade, the 2010’s… to ‘zone’ social housing into the place the City calls the DEOD (Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District) runs into a technical planning monster of the two-headed kind:

    (a) First, that area was zoned “industrial” after the collapse of the Freeway Plan. Yes, we turned ‘Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood’ into a concrete block warehouse zone. Good planning that.

    (b) The traffic that didn’t get a Freeway was re-routed into neighbourhood streets instead. Good Engineering that.

    The result of these two moves for anyone living on these blocks—in either social housing or market housing—is the impact of high volumes of traffic that studies show destroy neighbourhood fabric and make living in these places bad for your health, and generally bad in any other way we care to mark and measure ‘good’ urbanism.

    It also means that when anyone living there walks out into the street they are met by block after block of either social housing—most of it very badly designed and built on the cheap—or more often warehouses that turn a blank face to the street.

    However, our expectation is that the most troubled among us will call this place home.

    We need to strike in a new direction, Bill. We can take what is working and learn from it. And praise the effort of those working there everyday, fighting against all odds to make a difference, and getting the job done when seen in the light of the people that get their help.

    Yet, we have to provide them with a workable neighbourhood environment—whatever that turns out to mean in this community. In this place that by virtue of its history occupies one of the most important sites in our city, and now has gentrification as the wolf huffing and puffing at its door.

  • @ Lewis 101.

    Provocative as always. Your observation of traffic / social housing / market housing / industrial is important. There is also a storefront retail component as well. These are another important facet of this complex neighbourhood.

  • Okay, so if 100 posts later two of us can agree that there are some problems that are not “political” as much as they are a kind of “inheritance” of 70 (?) years of civic policy making, then where does that leave France’s original post on the DTES as a political hot potato?

    The Downtown Eastside has become a traditional battleground in Vancouver’s civic campaigns in recent years. Strategists from both sides know that city residents are deeply ashamed of the unsolved social problems in this part of the city and look to any political leader who appears willing to champion a solution.

    This year’s round has kicked off with … a story by Mark Hasiuk in the Courier about a new, 14-room facility in the Downtown Eastside meant to house young girls who are vulnerable to exploitation but refuse to leave the area.

    Kudos for young people developing a sense of attachment to place. Any way we care to slice it, that is the glue that holds us together.

    But, what about the, “city residents are deeply ashamed of the unsolved social problems in this part of the city”?

    One the one hand, no one is fool enough to deny the social realities that present in the DEOD (Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District). On the other, our work has suggested that much of the misery has nothing to do with “social issues”. Many of the mistakes we point to are fallacies committed in the urbanism. Errors that can only be corrected by changing concrete and verifiable facts in the urban fabric.

    Thus, if we have teenagers at risk, then a missing component we would factor into the equation is that teenagers that grew up in the DEOD were denied the experience of living in a fully functioning urban neighbourhood or quartier.

    I use the french designation to remind us that we have two traditions to borrow from in Canada. And, to alert us to the fact that modernist “neighbourhood” theory has pretty much left us out clamouring for more involvement.

    The young women in question would have benefited from growing up in a quartier that had a balance of residential uses; services; transportation; etc. The primary elements of good urbanism are well established. It is our abililty to use them calling modern situations into question that ..

  • [correction]

    It is our ability to use [the primary elements of good urbanism] that is called into question when we see modern neighbourhoods that … are not functioning.