Issue: Does the Building Community Society have the right plan for the Downtown Eastside?

You won’t find Larry Beasley or Mike Harcourt on the Power 50 list this year. The former was a top 10 player when he was co-director of city planning in the mid-2000s, while the latter was premier in the ’90s and probably would have made the top 5 if the list had exist. at the time.

But the two men, now both in their 60s, still wield special power in this city, working behind the scenes to try to solve housing problems in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Harcourt has been an ally through various housing support initiatives designed to reduce homelessness in the area for years, and in 2006 he helped establish (with the late Milton Wong, among others) the development principles of DTES Land Use, which were funded by the Real Estate Foundation of BC and the Vancouver Foundation with a mandate to find housing solutions in the DTES. The task force commissioned studies on how to house the most vulnerable until Wong’s death in 2011, when it largely disbanded.

A few years ago, however, the group changed its name to the Building Community Society banner. Beasley became a board member, joining a list of 11 people littered with high-profile names like former head of psychiatry at St. Paul’s Hospital, Dr. Bill MacEwan, former director of the Carnegie Community Center Ethel Whitty and former Globe and Mail Western publisher Paul Sullivan.

In this new incarnation, BCS has set itself the task of trying to help the approximately 300 most-at-risk people in the Downtown Eastside find housing, overcome addiction and manage their mental health issues – and re-stabilize their lives in a way that works for them.

Larry Beasley helped start the Building Community Society to address housing issues in the Downtown Eastside. Photo: Paul-Joseph

“Two years ago, when I joined the board, we came to the conclusion that things were getting worse rather than better, despite the best efforts of nonprofits, workers street and all the people out there,” Beasley said.

So he and his fellow BCS members came up with a plan to “try to reconceptualize and help the government reorganize itself to help people with these three interconnected challenges,” Beasley says. “To serve them better and hopefully give them something better than this street life, to give them some hope.”

The result is a plan with, as Beasley puts it, “six or seven dimensions”, including a drop-in center where patients could seek treatment. It also calls for a multidisciplinary support team that “would be assigned to one person and would stay with them, day in and day out”. Funding, says Beasley, would ideally be tied to the individual. “If the funding is tied to the person, everyone is going to try harder to stay with that person.”

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BCS, which is funded by private donors from across the city, including philanthropists Dave and Pamela Richardson, Concert Properties and the Beedie Foundation, among others, is also considering an oversight committee made up of key bodies including all three levels of government. And BCS, as part of that panel, would help stabilize the program and alert the government when things weren’t working out.

“We don’t intend to take on everything as an organization,” says Beasley. “What we’re trying to do is say, ‘Government, do your job differently.’ And this wonderful group of nonprofits that are already working, it would help them realign themselves on this new path and be much more successful in what they are already doing. There are people doing dimensions of all of this right now, but it’s offline.

To that end, Mike Harcourt met with the provincial government, hoping to gain ground for the BCS vision. He thinks the message is well received.

“In three years, we can have people treated properly and a good number of them are ready to retrain and go back to work or to a drug-free life,” says Harcourt. “That’s the ultimate goal: to have people leading lives of the highest quality possible. »

The provincial government, including Housing Minister David Eby and Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson, have reportedly been receptive to the idea, and Harcourt thinks an announcement trumpeting new housing for the most vulnerable in the province is only a few weeks away. Whether that would include an adoption of BCS recommendations remains to be seen, but the former prime minister is optimistic.

For its part, the City of Vancouver has yet to show how it might cooperate with BCS in the future. “The local government doesn’t really provide housing for low-income people,” says Harcourt. “He can do his best, but he can’t afford to solve the problem alone.”

The city politely declined to comment on BCS, as did Vancouver Councilor Jean Swanson, who has spent most of her time both inside and outside government advocating for the most vulnerable. from the city.

Karen Ward (on this year’s Power 50), drug policy advisor and board member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, made only a short statement when asked to comment on the work that BCS does. “I would like them to stop. It’s not a positive contribution at all,” Ward said.

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Asked if he’s worried about the pushback of voices in the community who might resent the idea of ​​perceived elitists trying to brush off people they don’t want to see, Harcourt says BCS has boots on the ground in the region to hear and respond to such comments. .

“We’re assessing some of the criticisms and apprehensions people have about what we’re offering,” he says. “We have been talking to people for weeks now, in and around the DTES. But we have also devoted years of work to analyzing the problem and the solutions, both immediate and long-term.

BCS members plan to expand their plan provincewide—Harcourt notes that the solutions presented by the group “have been pretty well accepted” by BC’s urban mayoral caucus. Beasley, meanwhile, points out that the strategies BCS is currently implementing are not intended to blame the efforts that came before.

“We think people there are working hard against the odds and organizing as best they can given the government arrangements in place,” he says.

“The ultimate goal is for those most at risk, who fall through the cracks the most, to start stabilizing and getting help.”

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