In a recent foray into the Main and Hastings corridor, an area known to this blogger for over 30 years, it was truly shocking to see the level of human desperation which continues to consume that area. What have we to show for the last decades of effort? Seemingly nothing. A whole community is under siege and burning before our very eyes. The area known as Strathcona is gradually being swallowed whole by an industrial level of drugs and the suffocating undercurrent of violence. Mental anguish and conflict layered on top of excruciating poverty.
This despite 30 years of a victim centric infrastructure which has been created, developed and now maintained by myriad levels of social workers, housing advocates, drug counsellors, medical staff, firefighters, police, sanitation workers and all those academics that like to “study” the problem. The advocates of all stripes have been continually moving in and out of these garbage strewn streets and alleyways, pausing long enough to relay their latest theory on how to correct this miasma of despair. Playing in the background, on some sort of victimization verbal loop, is the ever constant narrative of the “oppressed”, the “downtrodden” and the “unable to fend for themselves”.
It is scary place. It is depressing, but it is equally disgusting that in a country as bountiful as Canada, that this monument to everything that ails this society, stands in proud defiance.
Where has it all gone so wrong? Millions and millions of dollars expended in this apparent never-ending war on a drug fuelled mental health epidemic. It is a magnet which draws from all over the country. A bizarrely twisted tourist attraction, for all the wrong reasons. A place where even the hardened from other cities are truly taken aback at such a level of lawlessness and depravity.
Drastic and innovative action is clearly long overdue. Not innovation designed by the leftist victim advocating culture wing of our society, but by some with a modicum of common sense and where individual responsibility becomes part of the solution.
But the very first step, desperately needed and absolutely essential, is an honest managerial and expenditure review. A macro look over decades of funds and governmental decisions. A far reaching and inclusive appraisal of what has been spent and the effectiveness of those expenditures and the managers who have been overseeing the policies and processes for years.
The Washington Post recently unveiled a sweeping story sourced by thousands of pages of information which looked at the true cost of the war in Afghanistan. One can not help but be taken by the many parallels to what seems to be a similar story about the the war zone at Hastings and Main.
What the Washington Post and others found was that the war and the efforts of the Americans and the many other countries, including Canada, in Afghanistan has proven to be not just a failure, but a failure of epic proportions. It’s worth looking at their findings.
It was in 2001 that President George Bush announced the first military action in Afghanistan with the goal to disrupt terrorist operations and attack the Taliban. Today, eighteen years later, the Taliban control much of the country and are killing Afghan security force members sometimes in the hundreds per week. Even though the leadership of the Taliban moved to Pakistan, they have now expanded into Yemen, northern Africa, Somalia and Syrian.
Over $10 billion was spent on counternarcotics. Despite this, Afghanistan remains the source of over 80% of the global supply of heroin. Before the war the Afghanistan government had almost completely eradicated opium when the actual Taliban were in power. Opium production has now quadrupled.
They spent $87 billion to train Afghan military and police forces yet today no one believes that the Afghan military could support themselves. The army is continually fighting desertion and casualties making them replace over a third of their Forces every year.
War related spending has doubled the size of the Afghan economy but the current rate of unemployment is 25%. Corruption in all its forms still runs rampant.
$30 billion was spent on infrastructure and reconstruction. Most of that money has been considered “wasted”. The Inspector General documented over $15.5 billion lost to fraud and abuse between 2008 and 2017.
$500 billion on interest to finance the war spending, as all the monies have been borrowed which will take years to pay.
Over $1.4 trillion will be spent on veterans that fought in post 9/11 wars by 2059. About $350 billion has already gone to medical and disability care for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are estimating the total spending bill for the medical problems, over the next 40 years, to amount to another $1trillion.
Afghanistan remains one of the largest sources of refugees and immigrants.
What has this got to do with all of us? It demonstrates the problem when incremental spending and single narratives are accepted as gospel and when the problem is allowed to fester year after year. It demonstrates the need for a great big spotlight to be shone on this smaller version of Afghanistan. Not a study by an interest group that continually circles the DTES, but an independent study, independent of all who have been part of the thirty years of problems.
The usual self-described experts always avail themselves to the cameras and microphones, to riff or to lecture the rest of us on what they believe is the cause of the problems. They have no shortage of people to blame, but that blame seems to stop short of any introspection.
The Libby Davies or Jenny Kwans, or the Pivot Legal Society do not need to be consulted in this proposed study. Their versions are already clear and predictable. They are always pointing to some level of government not providing “more”. The money being demanded is an endless request which re-invents itself with another justification, in one form or other, for the next year.
Money clearly is the common cure all whether you are asking the firefighters or the housing advocates.
Each agency demands annual funding, taking credit for successes which go unchallenged or doesn’t seem to reflect the reality.
There have been studies and counter-studies over this continuum. The studies, like the DTES many services often operate in silos and not always in a singular approach.
Donald McPherson, is a typical example. The former drug policy co-ordinator for the city of Vancouver (who now heads another Drug Policy Coalition) talks about the 10 year plan outlined in the Vancouver Agreement in 2000. It was designed to improve housing and social welfare. He blames the collapse on the Harper government.
Mr. McPherson in this proposed future study should also be ignored.
Governments themselves have come and gone, each offering up their particular version of what is needed. Liberals and NDP equally share responsibility for these disastrous results. None of them take the time to look in the mirror.
On one side of the ledger, groups like the BC Centre for Disease Control takes credit for saving 3000 lives between April 2016 and December 2017.
On the other side of that account is that 2177 people also died in this Province during this time.
There is no shortage of positive spin.
Twenty-three operating supervised injection sites claim to have saved 230 deaths. The overall goal of these sites is to decrease “needle sharing”. Their “observational studies” dutifully report favourable results. Their evidence is that fewer people are “injecting in public”. Anybody walking down Hastings may disagree.
The annual operating cost for the injection sites alone is $ 2,948,101.
The injection sites define “saving lives” and count those that have been treated by “agonist treatment” or “opioid replacement” treatment where the people get put on a methadone program.
Meanwhile those running the Needle Exchange program say that Insite is exaggerating the numbers.
In 2017, 60,000 naloxone kits were distributed. At roughly $70 apiece that works out to about $4.2 million this year just on the kits.
Health officials claim that through their services that they have saved “hundreds of lives” but the numbers often vary according to the individual study quoted. The dearth of agreed upon results and the fact that there is a lot of self-reporting remains one of the major roadblocks to any comprehensive study.
But the fail safe fallback to any counter-argument is the oft quoted maxim that “even one life saved” means that their programs can be deemed a “success”.
On the negative side of the ledger.
Calls to Oppenheimer Park in 2019 for the Vancouver City Police have increased over 50%. Shots fired calls have increased over 800%, weapons calls have increased 300% and assaults in progress are up over 17%.
Vancouver City police estimate the policing costs for Oppenheimer park encampment are over a million dollars so far this year. That is for an encampment of about 100 people in amongst the 2700 estimated homeless in the area.
Meanwhile the BC Centre for Substance Abuse and the University of British Columbia in a recent study argued that the police need to stop policing the DTES because it leads to drug users fearing the police, intimidated, and being harassed by the police.
How did they come to this conclusion: they interviewed 72 persons in the DTES and spent 200 hours hanging around overdose prevention sites. They feel police shouldn’t be checking for drugs, or running persons for warrants and such minimal breaches of the law.
What is not answered is how do they propose that we “de-criminalize” if the people are still doing criminal acts?
In the last five years the number of break-ins to vehicles has doubled to 6538 incidents in the Strathcona area alone.
Vancouver City Police records show in 2018 there were 666 assaults and 68 robberies in the Strathcona area.
In the single month of June 2019 in this small geographic area there were 70 assaults, 106 thefts from vehicles, 11 robberies and 31 break-ins to businesses and residences.
To add insult to injury the number of homeless has increased from 2181 people last year to 2223 this year.
Like the war in Afghanistan over 18 years have now gone by since Mr. McPherson’s study in 2000.
Does anyone doubt that during this time there have been misuses of funds, fraud and corruption? Does anyone believe that governments are providing a full accounting of the costs?
Maybe, just maybe, government spending for more counsellors, housing or drugs is not the answer.
Maybe, it is unjustifiable, or maybe an alternative to a policy of more of the same is out there somewhere.
However, it is difficult to contemplate any alternative which does not include forced rehabilitation; or removal from the core (sorry Pivot Legal Society).
The only way to honestly answer is to see the entire package of funds and resources which have been expended over the many years; the layers of government action and in-action; the levels of bureaucracy; the levels of private industry and the number of social housing models which have been proposed and tried over the decades.
The results may be shocking, but nothing less than a Royal Commission level of study is needed. Just as importantly, it must all be seen by a fresh set of eyes–eyes from outside the DTES, eyes with no vested interest in the promulgation of the current norm.
The first thing is the most difficult admission, especially for those that have toiled under the most trying of circumstances with the best of intentions, is the admission that as of today, it has all been a massive failure. On a small scale, this may be our Afghanistan.
*All crime statistics are from the Vancouver City Police records, as reported by the Vancouver Courier.