(Vancouver Courier, April 6, 2011)
No amount of newspaper opining can sufficiently explain Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. In these green-wary times of blue box disposal, there’s not enough paper, not enough ink.
Vancouver’s homemade ghetto stands alone in the Canadian experience and therefore occupies a unique corner of our collective psyche. To visitors, it’s shocking. How can the “most livable city in the world” produce 10 square blocks of misery. To locals, it’s driven through, glanced and discarded. Public empathy falls victim to time.
But every now and then, it’s worth wondering how we got this far? And every now and then, we’re reminded that policy—not poverty—maintains the neighbourhood status quo.
Consider a new housing proposal “under review” at city hall.
The Atira Women’s Resource Society wants to transform the old International Inn (built as a brothel in 1912) at 120 Jackson Ave. into a women’s only housing project for at least 25 teenagers, mainly 16 to 19 year olds, who’ve “aged out” of foster care. A lone “house mom” will marshal the facility. Considering the role prostitution plays in the neighbourhood, and the inn’s past utility, the proposal falls somewhere between irony and the absurd.
Opposition to the plan, driven by women’s groups, focuses on deliverance from evil.
“If I was a pimp, I would love this. This is where I’d do my fishing.” So says Michelle Miller, director of REED, a Vancouver-based anti-human trafficking and sexual exploitation organization. Miller supports women’s housing. She ran a women’s only house in the Seattle area. But she opposes warehousing teenage girls in a sea of pimps and drug dealers. She’s especially concerned about the proposal’s focus on foster care graduates, a famously vulnerable demographic. “That’s exactly who pimps are recruiting and that’s exactly who make up the majority of women in prostitution.”
Teenage girls are hot commodities in the Downtown Eastside. Their profit potential, measured in tricks, attracts the worst people on Earth. Consider the situation at the Vivian, a women’s only housing project one block from 120 Jackson. Last Friday afternoon I watched several men loiter outside the squat brick building, talking to women and talking on cellphones. No one confronted them. To advocates I’ve interviewed, the Vivian symbolizes unintended exploitation. Subsequently, proponents of 120 Jackson are quick to distance themselves from the Vivian model. “The difference is the support services that will be available,” says Janice Abbott, executive director of Atira. “But predators target all of our housing. So yes, we have to be aware of that and manage it.”
Those “support services” are yet to be determined and largely irrelevant. The Downtown Eastside is a service hub. You don’t need a new housing project to connect teens with services. That’s not how the neighbourhood works.
And Abbott knows the neighbourhood. Her society operates several women’s only housing projects in the Downtown Eastside. Its for-profit subsidiary, Atira Property Management, manages 17 single-occupancy hotels in the neighbourhood. Alongside its rival entity, the Portland Hotel Society, Atira uses taxpayer millions to centralize social housing in the Downtown Eastside. More than any other policy scheme, housing decisions—made at city hall with provincial and federal money—enable neighbourhood decline.
The 120 Jackson proposal elevates flawed housing policy to fantastic heights. How could anyone support this idea? What playbook are they reading?
Michelle Fortin lauds the proposal and its commitment to “harm reduction.” As director of Watari, a counselling organization on East Hastings, she’s on the steering committee, working closely with Atira. She speaks quickly, using terms like “commercially sexually involved” and “problematic substance use.” (Translation: prostituted and addicted.) According to Fortin, it’s better to keep some troubled teens in the Downtown Eastside where they feel comfortable and available to folks like her. “When people come into the community and try to tear kids out of here, they go deeper underground which makes it harder for us to create any opportunity to get them out of here.”
No doubt that’s true. But apparently, in HarmReductionLand, the solution is 120 Jackson—a housing nightmare that may doom its tenants in their teenage years.
The proposal is under review. Building permits are pending. Expect a city hall decision sometime this spring.