The High Price of Despair — Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

Vancouver, B.C. is consistently ranked at the top of the list for the world’s most liveable cities. The mildest climate in Canada, coupled with a breathtaking mix of the Coast Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, has drawn hundreds of thousands of Canadians and foreigners alike, all vying for a spot in one of the most expensive  real estate markets. However, the city has a dirty little secret that it has been trying to suppress for decades. The historic four-block area near East Hastings and Main Street — the Downtown Eastside (DTES) area — known as one of the “poorest postal codes” in Canada, and a combination of drug use, HIV, homelessness, prostitution, mental illness, and crime all add to this. Homelessness has reached a 40-year high in what experts deem “crisis levels”, in large part due to the recent opioid epidemic.

In 2014, it was estimated that the roughly 250 social service/housing agencies operating in the DTES spent $360 million in funding in 2013. That is just shy of $1 million per day. Almost $265 million (approx. 75%) of that came from all three levels of government – almost entirely taxpayer dollars. A subsequent study conducted by Simon Fraser University showed that $26.5 million alone went to a group of 300 frequent offenders put into government care. And this is just in cost to the province of British Columbia. The professor that conducted the study concluded that “the essential finding was that despite the enormous investment of public monies, there was “no evidence of improvement”, while the costs incurred exceeded the average per capita income in Vancouver.

Taxpayer-funded Highs

With this eye-watering dollar figure of taxpayer money in mind, let us explore the “Welfare Wednesday” phenomenon that occurs every month. The government distributes social assistance cheques on one Wednesday of every month – ranging between $610 and $1,101. The majority of these recipients in the GVA live in the DTES, and whenever the cheques get cashed, the number of drug overdoses spike. According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, the number of overdose deaths rise by 40 per cent on payday. This shows that the money the country is spending on this problem is continuing to feed the addiction and fuel organized crime instead of helping those truly in need.

Should Canada, already a high-tax country, continue to throw money into this positive feedback loop of addiction? Keep in mind that the real costs to society are much higher, be it incurred from innocent citizens who are victims of crime, or public bus routes being suspended for driver and pedestrian safety.

Are those that need help getting it?

It is evident that many who truly have disabilities and mental health issues are deserving of care, and many fall victim to circumstance and turn to substances to escape trauma. However, it seems like the resources that are needed are not going to the right people. Should we continue to experiment with enabled drug use (via more injection sites), rewarding this behaviour with more allowances? Or should the money being spent on programs that actually help people get clean and back to being productive citizens in the workforce — thus lessening the burden on society? Isn’t it time to explore other avenues of ameliorating the current situation?

The richest of societies should be especially judged by how they treat their least fortunate, and Vancouver has its challenged set out for the foreseeable future.



photo by Jason Thibault (colour modified)