The Portland Hotel Society (PHS) is at the centre of a shit storm. The spectacle of the storm has captured all the press: fat cat executives treating themselves to salon treatment, a luxury New York hotel, and a Disneyland family vacation. Taxpayer outrage has focused on these excesses as evidence of Downtown Eastside agency “entitlement” (using well-worn poor-bashing stereotypes of the lazy homeless). BC Liberals, a bunch of media talking heads, and the comment-section-writing public is calling for tighter regulation over non-profits, and declaring that too much public money is spent in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). PHS executives are the visible focus of this shit storm, but are they the real targets?
What’s wrong with financial accountability?
PHS is threatened with direct funding and program cuts. But the public calls for more rigorous spending tracking and funder reporting will not only affect the multi-million dollar white professional led and staffed agencies like PHS. They can be easily used to wreck services provided by smaller, more grassroots groups that are led by Indigenous people and staffed by peer volunteers from the low-income community itself; groups like Aboriginal Front Door Society.
Mona Woodward, the Executive Director and sole full-time employee of AFD, the only service organization run entirely by and for Indigenous people in the DTES, struggles to keep the doors open against funder expectations she is not equipped to meet. AFD doesn’t have any multi-year or sustaining funding, which means it has to constantly crank out funding proposals and generate reports on how funding is spent. Between December and March of this year, Woodward pumped out 22 funding proposals, which she said take her an average of 32 hours each to write. In 2013 she raised money to hire a temporary part time worker, but had to hire someone whose specialty is data analysis in order to work on funder reports. She also had to redirect programming funding to buying computers and training volunteers to use them in order to meet increasingly scientific data-based report expectations from the federal government.
In February the federal government announced that homelessness funding will now go through a “housing first” model, which means there’s no more funding for advocacy or supports. “It’s a big political move,” Woodward explained. “None of the support services are going to be eligible. We have to reframe our work as ‘maintaining housing’ rather than advocacy.” But they still have to respond to who’s coming in the door. They’re doing it without the funding or staff, on a peer-support model that is possible only because of the efforts and commitment of Mona Woodward and her stretched low-income Indigenous volunteers.
Mona is involved in social work out of her personal and professional commitments and connections to the community. Her leadership and advocacy within a community-driven campaign gave rise to the Sisterwatch, Indigenous women’s police outreach program. Concentrating funding in more bureaucratic, middle-class, white-professional led organizations could squeeze out passionate and disruptive commitments like Mona Woodward’s from the DTES agency world.
Smaller and more grassroots service and community organizations like AFD should not be punished for funding mismanagement by a big DTES agency. They need more funding to hire more staff , or to be exempted from bureaucratic reporting requirements.
What happened when the government took over DERA?
When the first streams of this media torrent over PHS ran the streets of the DTES, they followed well-worn paths. As recently as spring 2010, the BC Housing led takedown of the DTES Residents Association (DERA) for financial mismanagement flooded and overran the defenses of this well-organized community. Didi Dufresne worked as a welfare and housing advocate for DERA at the time. She explains that just after the province put DERA’s three social housing buildings into receivership, all the private funding for DERA’s poverty law program was cut.
“When DERA was open, there were 6.5 advocates between First United and DERA alone. I think it is safe to say that there are 3.5 less advocates in the neighbourhood now because of funding reductions.” The shit storm surrounding DERA’s corruption scandal provided cover for government funding cuts to programs that supported the DTES low-income community. These advocates are sorely missed at a time when illegal evictions and landlord harassment characterize life in DTES hotels. Given this precedent, what cuts might low-income people suspect this time around?
What’s happening now at PHS?
When the former PHS executive agreed to step aside, the province replaced them with a new board from the health and provincial bureaucracies. This new board has not been totally up front with their plans for PHS programs. Kailin See, the manager of PHS’s Drug User Resource Centre (DURC), formerly called the “Lifeskills” centre, says communication with the new board and interim executive has been poor. As a result figuring out how long each program may last has been mostly guesswork. “What’s really under threat,” See fears, “is the culture of PHS. Our non-bureaucratic, non-clinical, nimble and responsive, and sometimes controversial way of providing care is under threat.”
Does that mean programs will be cut, or that they will be taken over by Coastal Health employees under Coastal Health management style? See worries health services are most in danger of being sanitized, Coastal Health style. That could mean PHS nurses, and their informal, personalized approaches to in-home care, could go the way of the old DTES Street Nurses and be replaced by non-DTES-specific Coastal Health managed nurses. PHS had ambitious plans for the Princess building being built at Princess and Alexander, including an extension of the CTCT program at the Pennsylvania hotel. CTCT is essentially a hospital wing for people who need long-term care and are actively using drugs. It is signature PHS-style health care. Now See worries the plan won’t go forward, that “PHS will just be opening doors and taking out the trash. We hope that’s not the case but we can’t get answers from the interim board.”
The cuts will come down hardest against those programs operating outside of Coastal Health’s direct mandates and control. “We’re concerned about all our social enterprises and peer programs, including Radio Station Café, The Window, East Van Roasters, Community Thrift, and Wishy Washy Laundry,” See said. Approximately 90% of those employed by PHS social enterprises specifically, See said, are women. Adding in the other honorarium-based jobs in harm reduction, building and alley clean-up, and peer support, nearly two hundred low-income DTES residents are employed by PHS in ways that subsidize or stabilize their incomes.
See is also concerned that PHS properties and buildings that hold back condo developments are in immediate danger of being lost. PHS farm projects were supported with private grants that the new board may not entertain. PHS’s long-term investment buildings could also end up for sale by the new board as it seeks to resolve PHS’s debts, opening up more space to condo developers in the DTES. The new board has already put up for sale the Holden building, with ‘Only Seafood’ downstairs and the massive ‘loggers hall’ upstairs. The Merchant’s Bank building at Pigeon Park, which used to house coop radio, is also a potential loss.
See worries the health services that are in danger of being cut are those which operate without Coastal Health’s direct mandate, namely: the Drug User Resource Centre (DURC). See says DURC’s crack pipe vending machine, harm reduction window, drinkers lounge and brewing program, ‘tele-health’ program that lets patients see specialists over a video feed, and peer support and volunteer-employment programs are all PHS initiatives and programming. If PHS culture and style is re-pressed in a Coastal Health mold, will these more edgy programs make the cut?
What’s the government’s real motive?
To Kailin See, “It seems obvious that all levels of government, the health authority and BC Housing are trying to get out of the DTES. This means displacing the people who live there, which is done by making it impossible to live there.” She thinks, “It’s not about Insite or peer programs or any specific housing project or social enterprise, it’s about getting low-income people out of the buildings and off the land.”
Whether the province is cutting advocacy positions from DERA, blocking effective Indigenous anti-homelessness organizing by binding up AFD’s organizers in red tape funding reports, or eliminating PHS’s creative healthcare programs and income supplements, the target is the rights and stability of DTES low-income communities. And it is for these rights, and for better lives, that these three women stand and hold their ground against the shitstorm of displacement.