"Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results."
That famous quote from scientist and brainiac Albert Einstein is included in a new report called Vancouver's Downtown Eastside: A Community in Need of Balance, compiled by the Strathcona Business Improvement Association, the Ray-Cam Cooperative Community Association and the community-based Inner City Safety Society.
Joji Kumagai with the Strathcona BIA told me the groups were inspired to compile the study out of frustration in watching millions of dollars spent on the Downtown Eastside annually with little improvement to show for it.
Kumagai says while the majority of groups dedicating time and money to the Downtown Eastside are well-meaning, they're not showing the results needed to make the community a safe, healthy place to live for everyone. Then there's what's commonly known as the "poverty pimps," my words not Kumagai's, who aren't so well intentioned and make a living off the backs of the poor and downtrodden.
The paper details how the neighbourhood has become the recipient community of numerous failed social experiments by governments, bureaucrats, academics, researchers, social agencies and those well-meaning volunteers. Experiments designed to improve the community's social problems but with no real results. Part of the problem, says the report, is the mixed messages offered by these varying groups-legalize drugs, crack down on drugs, raise welfare rates, put people to work instead of offering welfare, legalize the sex trade, crack down on the sex trade. The problem, says the study, is each scenario deals with a specific problem aimed at dealing with a specific problem group.
The authors of the report, based on earlier work completed by the Vancouver Board of Trade's Downtown Eastside Task Force, argue the neighbourhood is not a social experiment to be run on a grand scale, but is instead a community and should be treated as such. The group is not denying the area has problems, but for the first time that I've seen, someone is asking how much of the current situation is the result of the system itself. The paper includes a historical review, which details how even arguably successful programs have too often failed to make a difference.
The 37-page report addresses and offers suggestions on ways to deal with the myriad problems common to the neighbourhood, including drug abuse and mental illness. One section I found heartbreaking focuses on the Downtown Eastside's children and youth-dubbed the Next Generation-who every day face poor nutrition, parental illness, life with a single parent, obstacles as new immigrants, and a hostile environment with daily exposure to criminal activity, homelessness, drug abuse, domestic violence and social disorder.
A lot of money is poured into the neighbourhood for street-involved, homeless, drug and alcohol addicted adults, but kids are left to fend for themselves. Kumagai told me a story he'd heard about a toddler not quite three years old, bringing a hypodermic needle to the Ray-Cam Community Centre.
The paper says that for far too long the Downtown Eastside has been viewed as "Vancouver's Emergency Ward," rather than as a community. "As a result," the paper reads in part, "virtually all government, bureaucratic, service and media attention has concentrated on 'fixing' those at highest risk." What this study wants is for those in power to build on the community's strengths and successes.
I highly recommend the report as required reading for the winner of the mayoral race following the November municipal election. It truly is time to stop the insanity.