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Mayor Sullivan's Big Ambitions

He wants a 'Civil City' but critics see devil in details.

Monte Paulsen 21 Dec

Monte Paulsen is a contributing editor at The Tyee.

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Vision or contradiction?

Mayor Sam Sullivan wants to save the Earth by cleaning up Vancouver's streets.

"This is about the survival of the species," Sullivan told The Tyee. "We need to live lighter on the Earth...the most profound way we can do that is densification," he explained. "Unless we can convince people that high density does not equal crime and disorder, we will have a major environmental problem on our hands."

Sullivan's sprawling plan to save the streets, approved by Vancouver City Council late last week, vows to cut by half the incidences of homelessness, open drug dealing, aggressive panhandling and other public nuisances -- all in time for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

The Mayor's critics noted that crime rates are already dropping in Vancouver, and warned that despite Sullivan's ambitious rhetoric, the Civil City plan amounts to little more than another crackdown on street crime.

"This is nothing but an expensive marketing campaign to repackage things that are already happening, or that have been in the works for some time," said opposition Councillor Raymond Louie of Vision Vancouver.

"This is not the first attempt to deal with incivility in the downtown core," said David Eby of Pivot Legal Society. He noted that similar efforts by the Vancouver Police Department succeeded only in pushing homelessness and drug dealing into other parts of the city. "The same thing is going to happen again. They'll just be displacing people to other areas."

Enforcing bylaws, housing homeless

Project Civil City will open a new office, create a new board, establish a new implementation team and hire a new commissioner to co-ordinate it all -- a Czar d' Civilité, if you will. Among the project's immediate tasks will be to benchmark current levels of panhandling and drug sales, review ticketing and bylaw enforcement procedures, and push the Vancouver Police to reassign more officers to the street. (Conspicuously absent from the council resolution was any commitment to benchmark homelessness. There has been a significant growth in the number of homeless counted region-wide, almost doubling from 1,121 persons in 2002 to 2,174 persons in 2005.)

"We want everybody to start prioritizing and thinking in more innovative ways," Sullivan said. "Basically, we're trying to get this massive bureaucracy to start to act in a different way."

The city will spend at least $300,000 a year on Civil City overhead, and is seeking another $1 million in Olympic Legacy funding to fund the hiring of additional bylaw officers. After his amendment to limit city spending to $300,000 a year was brushed aside, opposition councillor Louie concluded the final cost is likely to be much higher.

Among the more than 50 ideas floated in the Project Civil City plan:

Sullivan acknowledged that such tactics "are not necessarily the things that are going to get us the big, big outcomes." He said the project's "real benefits" will come from pending initiatives involving housing the mentally ill, providing drugs to addicts and creating social housing. When asked which components of the plan were his priorities, Sullivan replied:

"Number one would probably be obtaining caring, structured environment for mentally ill people. It is estimated that there are about 500 people with significant mental illnesses on the streets of Vancouver. These people should be supported in a structured way. Some of those, I believe, should be in Riverview," the mental hospital, which Sullivan wants to see reopened as soon as possible.

"Probably my next choice is a very robust maintenance program of drug maintenance." Sullivan wants to expand on NAOMI, the controversial experiment that provides free heroin to addicts. "It's a little bit sensitive right now, so I don't want to dwell on it, but I can tell you that will be a big, big part of my agenda," Sullivan said. "I actually feel it will be probably one of the most important elements of the Civil City Project."

"Number three is the actual provision of social housing." After slashing social housing in 2001, the B.C. Liberal government has pledged to fund as many as a dozen new social housing properties that are owned or optioned by the city. Most of these would be so-called "supportive housing," which provides mental and physical health services to residents.

Civil contradictions

"What kind of legacy is a year or two of bylaw enforcement?" asked Pivot's David Eby, a Downtown Eastside lawyer who advocates for the poor. "It's not a lasting solution to the poverty issues down here."

"Increased enforcement is at odds with harm reduction initiatives," said Eby, who is involved in more than a dozen lawsuits against the city. "The more police you put on the street, the less likely people are to use the safe injection site, the less likely people are to go to needle exchanges. People just use whatever they buy immediately, rather than risk carrying it around."

Homeless addicts could find themselves trapped in an even more bizarre predicament by the contradictory policies within the Civil City Project. Residents will likely be required to pledge abstinence in order to enter most of the "supportive" housing planned by the city and province. By offering a drug maintenance program amidst such a tight housing market, Civil City could wind up worsening the homelessness problem it aims to alleviate.

"I've definitely thought about it," Sullivan replied to The Tyee. "I believe there are innovative ways to accommodate that...I'm on to that one."

"This mayor often muses about concepts and ideas, then forces his staff to act on his musings," said opposition Councillor Louie. "There is a small population for whom a drug maintenance program might be helpful. But to target 700 chronic offenders would be irresponsible. You can't just open a pharmacy and dispense drugs without first giving people the opportunity to reintegrate into the community."

Can fines pay for plan?

Another odd aspect of the plan is revealed in one of the resolutions passed late last week, in which the city anticipates funding the implementation of Project Civil City through the increased collection of bylaw fines.

"Homeless, mentally ill and drug addicted people will not be able to pay these fines," said Councillor Louie. "There's no point in giving a ticket to a person who clearly can't pay. The only outcome is that we force these people into a situation where they wind up with a criminal record. That's not helpful for their future prospects of reintegration into mainstream society."

Eby added that each time a homeless person is rearrested and jailed, provincial taxpayers pay up to $200 to hold them overnight. "So Sam Sullivan's $1 million isn't actually $1 million if it winds up putting people in jail," Eby said. "Ironically," he added, "if that happened to the same person two night a month, taxpayers will have spent enough money to have rented them a room for the month."

Eby said that the Vancouver Police Department's attempts to crack down on street crime had helped push the department over budget in two of the last three years, while pushing drug trafficking to Granville Street, Commercial Drive and Mount Pleasant.

"It's already failed, you know, before it's even started," concluded Eby. "And that million bucks is just going to totally disappear."

Board of Trade guiding policy?

"I'm not inventing anything new," Sullivan conceded. "I'm trying to coalesce a whole bunch of different things that are happening under one brand."

Sullivan said the ideas in his plan came from a series of community meetings, as well as from a website he created to troll for citizen complaints. His consultations were also the target of a concerted lobbying effort by the Vancouver Board of Trade, which has spent years advocating for a crackdown on crime and disorder.

"Vancouver is in the grip of an urban malignancy manifested by an open drug market, rising property crime, aggressive panhandling and a visible, growing population of the homeless," stated an Oct. 30 letter signed by a dozen local business leaders. The letter was addressed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Premier Gordon Campbell and Mayor Sullivan. "We have not lacked recommended solutions. What we have lacked is a sense of urgency, a will to put solutions into effect."

The letter, which was organized by the Vancouver Board of Trade, recommended an agenda almost identical to that put forth by Sullivan: supportive housing, mental health services, police and judicial resources, and organizations to launch crime prevention initiatives. (The notable exception was that the board urged drug treatment, whereas Sullivan advocates maintenance.)

Sullivan acknowledged that the board letter "certainly" influenced the Civil City Project. "It was a great letter," he said. "It came from some of the most significant business organizations in the city."

'Been keepin' head low'

The mayor said the true seed of his latest plan was his EcoDensity idea, which critics such as Louis also describe as an exercise in packaging. The mayor sounded frustrated that his EcoDensity concept has not gained traction. "This is something that nobody really pays attention to or cares about or is interested in, except me," he said. "I put it in the Civil City document, but just sort of a throw-away sentence about it, because everybody keeps editing it out whenever I write it in."

"Right now there's a lack of understanding of the public of the relationship between high density and environmental protection," he said.

"Know that 65 per cent of all the trips made downtown are made by foot. This is unprecedented...So if we can replicate these kinds of behaviours, we will have achieved really important environmental goals.

"I believe there is a powerful moral imperative for us to convince citizens that their civic government is going to be there for them if they agree to live in eco-dense cities," Sullivan said.

"You know, I got a lot of criticism over the past year," Sullivan concluded. "I've been keepin' my head low and doing a lot of work. I think that in the next year or two, well, next year, a lot of the seeds that I've been planting should start to bear some fruit."

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