What we’re missing by ignoring Vancouver’s drug epidemic
Joss Arnott // Staff Writer
Ethan Woronko // Illustrator
There are two epidemics in the city of Vancouver: drugs and apathy.
My mother volunteered in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) while she was pregnant with me. It’s been twenty-one years since then, and the issue of homelessness still stands. Indeed, it’s gotten worse. We all know the sights and sounds; used needles and desperate screams, dried blood and distant police sirens. With an air of practiced ignorance, we see and then unsee the awful conditions that exist in the DTES. That’s because homelessness isn’t going away—empathy is.
It’s telling that it took less than a month for Vancouver to reinvent society when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Monetary aid was given freely, and we made sacrifices for the good of everyone. So how is there a decades-long homeless epidemic in the same city?
The idea behind the project is hopeful, but it alone will never be enough to solve the systemic problems inherent to this city’s core epidemic. The project’s goal is to stop people from getting absorbed by the DTES—not fixing it. Until we can address the substance abuse and mental illness rampant in the core of this city, it can never heal.
In 2020, over 1,500 people died from a drug overdose in British Columbia. In that same time frame, the COVID-19 pandemic claimed 988 lives in BC. In collaboration with the University of British Columbia, Foundations for Social Change launched the New Leaf Project in 2020. This pilot program tested the effectiveness of universal income for homeless people living in Vancouver. One hundred and fifteen participants were selected within specific parameters to maximize the study’s effectiveness: participants were required to have been homeless for less than two years and have no history of mental illness or substance abuse. Of the 115 newly homeless people chosen for the study, 50 were given a one-time bank deposit of $7,500.
The money was dispersed with no strings attached, and all participants had access to classes that taught basic finances. The study’s goal was to showcase that people can and will turn their lives around for the better when given a chance—and it worked. Those who received the money had better food security, found permanent housing faster and had more savings than their counterparts in the study who did not receive the lump sum.
Traditional social welfare is an IV drip: a little money given each month to keep people alive but it doesn’t let them live. That’s because it’s difficult to worry about rent, clothes or education when you can barely feed yourself. That’s why the New Leaf Project is so revolutionary. It offers trust and opportunity freely. An upfront, lump-sum gives someone the chance to find their feet. Suddenly, you don’t have to worry about surviving until tomorrow. You can plan for next week or next year, whether that means finding an apartment, going to school or getting a job. The choice is their own, and that’s why this project is so special.
The Downtown Eastside won’t change until we stop pretending that it isn’t there. People are dying, and we’re not doing enough to stop it.
While the New Leaf Project helped fifty people get their lives back on track, over 2000 people in Vancouver identify as homeless. The idea behind the project is hopeful, but it alone will never be enough to solve the systemic problems inherent to this city’s core epidemic. The project’s goal is to stop people from getting absorbed by the DTES—not fixing it. Until we can address the substance abuse and mental illness rampant in the core of this city, it can never heal. Social housing gets people off the street, but it sure as shit doesn’t stop addiction.
We don’t need increased policing. We don’t need to close more tent cities. We don’t need any more band-aids. We need the municipal, provincial and federal governments to work together to help these people. And to do that, people need to start caring again.
We need to treat homeless people as people. You can’t glaze your eyes and stare straight ahead as you cross Hastings. Something has to change, and that something has to be radical. Clean injection sites, more social housing, the New Leaf Projects and even Vancouver City Council’s move to decriminalize drugs are all great initiatives, but these are band-aids being placed upon a gushing wound. The Downtown Eastside won’t change until we stop pretending that it isn’t there. People are dying, and we’re not doing enough to stop it.