At 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 featured top-10 player during his time as the city’s co-director of planning in the mid-2000s, while the latter was premier in the ’90s and likely would have been a top-5 fixture if the list had existed back then. 

But the two men, now both in their 70s, are still wielding a particular kind of power in this city, working behind the scenes to try to address housing concerns in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Harcourt has been an ally via various housing support initiatives designed to alleviate homelessness in the area for years and, in 2006, he helped establish (with the late Milton Wong, among others) the DTES Land Use Development Principles, which was funded by the Real Estate Foundation of BC and the Vancouver Foundation with the mandate to find solutions for housing in the DTES. The working group commissioned studies on how to house the most vulnerable until Wong’s death in 2011, when it largely disbanded. 

A couple of years ago, however, the group rebranded under the Building Community Society banner. Beasley stepped on as a board member, joining an 11-person roster littered with high-profile names like former St. Paul’s Hospital head of psychiatry Dr. Bill MacEwan, former Carnegie Community Centre director Ethel Whitty and former Globe and Mail western editor Paul Sullivan. 

As this new incarnation, BCS has taken on the task of trying to help the 300 or so people most at risk in the Downtown Eastside find housing, overcome drug addiction and manage their mental health issues—and restabilize their lives in a way that works for them. 

“Two years ago, when I joined the board, we came to the conclusion that things were getting worse rather than better, despite the very best efforts of the non-profits and the street workers and all the people down there,” says Beasley. 

So, he and his fellow BCS members came up with a plan to “try and reconceptualize and help government reorganize to help serve people with those three interconnected difficulties,” Beasley explains. “To serve them better, and hopefully to give them something better than just that street life, to give them some hope.”

The result is a plan with, as Beasley says, “six or seven dimensions,” including a welcome centre at which patients could get treatment. It also calls for a multidisciplinary support team that “would be assigned to a person and stay with them, day in and day out.” Funding, says Beasley, would ideally be linked to the individual. “If the funding is related to the person, everyone is going to try harder to stay with that person.”

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BCS, which is privately funded by donors around the city—including philanthropists Dave and Pamela Richardson, Concert Properties and the Beedie Foundation, among others—also envisions an oversight panel, made up of key agencies 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.

“We don’t intend to take it all on as an organization,” Beasley explains. “What we’re trying to do is say, ‘Government, do your job differently.’ And that wonderful group of non-profit organizations that are already doing work, it would help them to realign into this new way and have much more success in what they’re doing already. There are people doing dimensions of all this right now, but it’s disconnected.”

To that end, Mike Harcourt has been meeting with the provincial government, hoping to gain some traction for the BCS vision. He thinks the message is being well received. 

“Within three years we can have people being treated properly, and have a good number of them ready for re-training and back into work or back into a life that’s free of drugs,” argues Harcourt. “That’s the end goal—to have people leading as high a quality of life as possible.”

The provincial government, including Housing Minister David Eby and Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson, has reportedly been receptive to the idea, and Harcourt thinks that an announcement trumpeting upcoming new housing for the province’s most vulnerable is mere weeks away. Whether that would include an adoption of the BCS recommendations remains to be seen, but the former premier is optimistic.

For its part, the City of Vancouver hasn’t yet shown its hand on how it might cooperate with BCS going forward. “The local government doesn’t really deliver low-income housing,” says Harcourt. “It can do its best, but it can’t afford by itself to solve the problem.” 

The city politely declined to comment on BCS, as did Vancouver councillor Jean Swanson, who has spent the bulk of her time—both in and outside of government—advocating for the city’s most vulnerable. 

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

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Asked if he’s worried about pushback from community voices who may resent the idea of perceived elitists trying to sweep away the people they don’t want to see, Harcourt says that BCS has boots on the ground in the area to hear and respond to such feedback. 

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

The members of BCS envision taking their plan province-wide—Harcourt notes that the solutions presented by the group “have been pretty well accepted” by the BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus. Beasley, meanwhile, stresses that the strategies BCS is putting into action now are not intended to lay blame for any effort that has come before. 

“We believe that the people down there are working hard against all odds, and are piecing it together as best they can given the government arrangements that are there,” he says. 

“The ultimate objective is that those who are the most at risk, who are falling through the cracks the most, are beginning to get stabilized and have help.”