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'We Were Seen as Quite Scary': PHS's Townsend

Mistakes were made, says soul-searching ex-director, but insights came too late.

By Doug Ward 2 Apr 2014 |

Doug Ward is a Vancouver writer previously with the Vancouver Sun. Find his previous stories for The Tyee here.

There was a sense of relief in Vancouver on the morning of Dec. 14, 2002 when squatters began taking down their tent city around the vacant Woodward's building, filling six dumpsters with trash. The peaceful dismantling of the 92-day Woodsquat was largely organized by the Portland Hotel Society. The group's credibility with street people helped avert a potentially violent riot and expensive police action.

The homeless participants agreed to leave the derelict department store and move into a nearby hotel, except for one woman who sat outside in the dark, threatening a hunger strike. It was left to PHS executive-director Mark Townsend to gently prod the final squatter onto her feet. As Townsend tells the story, he told her that a deal had been reached -- and he vowed to fight for the low-income daycare and communal space she specially requested in the new Woodward's building.

Years went by and Townsend finally acted on that pledge last summer, confronting Vancouver city staff with demands about the daycare operation at Woodward's. His aggressive behaviour so angered city manager Penny Ballem that she informed him that he could no longer meet with city employees on any issue.

"I did keep that promise and I did get in trouble and got disliked for it," recalled Townsend last week. "If Penny Ballem had spoken to me, I would have said, 'I made a promise and I have to keep it. Those are sacred things and if it upsets you, I am sorry.'"

The breakdown in relations between Townsend and the city's top bureaucrat was part of a pattern of increasingly strained partnerships between the PHS co-founder and key power brokers, including the organization's largest funders, BC Housing and Vancouver Coastal Health.

People close to the PHS say that Townsend's zeal drove the non-profit, improving housing and health conditions for thousands of the city's most marginalized people. His damn-the-torpedoes tactics won great victories, especially the creation and legal survival of Insite, North America's only stand-alone supervised injection drug site, which was just given another one-year exemption to continue to operate.

But they say his in-your-face attitude eventually backfired, making enemies where friends were needed. Compassion is a word often applied to Townsend. So is hubris.

'There are many mistakes I made'

"Mark was passionate and advocated strongly to get what he thought was good for the PHS. Everything was a tactic, a means to an end," said Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, which advocates an end to the war on drugs.

"If people felt bullied by Mark, it may not have been personal. But he had to realize that his actions often had a big impact on the people he was dealing with. You can only get away with that for so long before people close up to you."

Townsend said that he usually felt "like a speck of dust" when going up against the powers-that-be. But he acknowledged that his combative style of lobbying (the Portland has never been into grovelling) could have contributed to his dramatic downfall.

"I suppose there are many mistakes I made. I am always trying to do the best I can with my heart and soul," said Townsend.

"But one of the things that I didn't really put in my mind is that we were seen as quite scary. And I didn't feel like we had any power. So there's an illusion of that and I was very unaware of it."

The rifts raise many questions: Were Townsend, his wife, Liz Evans, and two other directors forced to resign from the PHS because of the now well-known spending irregularities -- or was it because of the belligerent tactics they used to press their funders?

Did the government agencies paying the bills -- who generally praise the PHS for its innovative delivery of services -- simply decide they no longer wanted to work with Townsend and his three fellow directors?

Crackdown was 'personal': PHS worker

In 2011, the PHS angered Housing Minister Rich Coleman when it staged months of protests, including a 24-hour soccer game, against the closure of the New Fountain Shelter. The province eventually agreed to open the PHS-run shelter for one year. Over the years, Coleman was happy to stand next to PHS leaders at the openings of housing projects his ministry funded and the non-profit managed. But in the end, he appeared to have run out of patience -- perhaps not with the organization, but with its leadership.

In a tweet praising the PHS and Evans after the resignations, Coleman pointedly did not mention Townsend. "Let's remember the people who need Portland's help are still being helped. And Liz's real compassion for them. We did what was best."

Townsend was on even shakier ground with Vancouver Coastal Health, whose president, David Ostrow, became incensed over PHS protests against the agency's decision to change the way it funded services for women at the PHS-managed Rainier Hotel. In a letter to the PHS board, obtained by The Globe and Mail, Ostrow complained that protesters had forced their way into buildings and intimidated VCH staff and clients. Ostrow told the board that VCH would no longer deal with the PHS through Townsend.

Ronnie Grigg, a PHS coordinator at Insite, believes the crackdown was "personal," with Townsend the main target. "At some point, you polarize people in the process of confrontation and activism."*

After The Tyee first reported in early March that the province was poised to move against the PHS, Grigg sent Townsend and Evans a letter saying, as he recalled it, "if the people in power despise you, but the disempowered adore you, you can consider that work well done."

Despite all the bad blood and the damaging spending uncovered in the two audits, the PHS believed as late as mid-February that it was close to reaching a deal that would keep the leadership in control. PHS officials were working with the consulting firm Deloitte, at the request of the province, to develop more stringent accounting protocols.

Then out of the blue, according to Townsend, the PHS was told that Deloitte was out of the picture. It was suddenly handed an ultimatum: the four directors had to resign or else PHS contracts with BC Housing and VCH would be cancelled.

Was there a final loss of faith in the PHS brain trust? "I can't answer that," said Townsend. "I'm trying to do a good job, it's a complicated job, and I think we deliver stuff and we have a certain style in the way we deliver it."

MacPherson said that Townsend was a brilliant strategist. "They found some funds from somewhere and used it to run a successful national campaign to win the Insite case. No one else stepped up to do that.

"But there was an arrogant attitude at another level -- and the PHS board should have known. An accountability system should have been in place."

Supporters of the PHS are anxious that the non-profit's groundbreaking work not be obscured by the public flogging meted out by the media over the past two weeks. The expenses scandal left Townsend and Evans sitting ducks for columnists, talk-show hosts and social media cynics.

PHS chaplain Al McKay, in a website post, said much of the media coverage amounted to "perverse sensationalism." He added: "The PHS board and directors have been made out to be people motivated solely by greed. The leadership that I know have lived out the belief that we are all connected as human beings."

Innovators who often worked alone

Obscured in the frenzy of indignation is the pivotal role that the Portland played in changing the health crisis faced by the Downtown Eastside in the late 1990s, when Vancouver had the highest incidence of HIV infection among drug users in the world and nearly 200 people died each year from drug overdoses.

"The Portland was very much in the vanguard of the response to a horrific situation when there was very little government response taking place," said MacPherson. "They blocked traffic, hammered crosses in the ground, they got the attention of governments."

Stephen Learey, former executive assistant to mayor Larry Campbell, said that the PHS was the first non-profit housing provider with a no-eviction policy. "No resident would be forced onto the street. PHS residents soon realized that they would not be evicted, and their behaviour actually changed for the better. It was very innovative at the time."

Learey, now executive director of the Strathcona Health Society, added that the PHS accepted people without any pre-conditions. "The PHS realized that some people will never get a job, or live a life independently due to health issues and addictions. However, they felt that those people should have the opportunity to live a life to the fullest."

MacPherson said that the Portland created a sense of belonging in the Downtown Eastside. "That people belonged in housing. Even if you were an addict or an alcoholic. 'This is your house.' And they tried to embrace that philosophy in everything they did."

Not that every non-profit and activist group in the Downtown Eastside loves the PHS. Relations are frosty between it and other non-profits, including Atira and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). There has long been a turf war with non-profits seeking a share of scarce funds.

Journalist Charles Campbell, in a report for VCH, said that the PHS, "the largest agency in the Downtown Eastside, is widely regarded as an organization that has achieved great things but does not always play well with others."

Many anti-gentrification activists were critical of the PHS for working with developers -- and particularly for their partnership in the new Woodward's building. The PHS was happy to get 200 units of secured social housing. Other activists, fearful that Woodward's would spur gentrification, attacked the PHS for accepting "crumbs."

MacPherson said it was true that the PHS didn't go out of its way to work with other non-profits. "They are actors, they do stuff. They don't have time to build coalitions."

Nathan Edelson, a former planner for the city, said in an email that there is "more than a little truth" to the charge that the PHS didn't work well with others. "But in this the PHS is not alone," said Edelson. "Other groups have also been accused of working without the full cooperation of others. Yet each of these groups made significant contributions to the community -- in part because they thought their mission was urgent and couldn't wait until there was a consensus."

Forgiveness readily given

One of the ironies of the PHS crisis is that four days before Townsend and Evans agreed to resign, Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief health officer for VCH, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times crediting Insite for reducing overdose deaths and harmful injection practices.

Daly was appointed last week to the new PHS board of directors, and during a recent media interview said that people should not forget that the organization "made a tremendous difference in the Downtown Eastside… We've seen a dramatic increase in life expectancy in that neighbourhood."

Supporters like MacPherson hope that the expenses scandal won't taint the organization's legacy or its future. "It's tragic," said MacPherson. "We will see what happens to what they built. They were managing this fairly large enterprise that had a lot of great things about it and now they are done. It's like: Boom… but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater."

PHS employees are now worried about their jobs and their clients. Insite coordinator Grigg said any cuts at his workplace could put people at risk. "Insite workers are treated like rock stars within a couple of blocks down here. People love us. It's not an exaggeration to say we save lives down here.

"At Insite we triage the neighbourhood. We find people shelters, supportive living. We function as an emergency room because frequently street trauma victims are brought our way."

Harm reduction expert MacPherson lamented how the fallout over the audits has sparked media commentary about poverty pimps and the Downtown Eastside being a hopeless money pit. "Oh man, it's like an endless tape loop. There have been real achievements in the Downtown Eastside in the past decade, so let's get beyond that mentality."

MacPherson said that government agencies could never have achieved what the PHS did because they could never have the connection with people on the street. "You need NGOs to do that work. They are agile and creative because they are connected to the community.

"Why was Insite full the first day it opened? It was because the PHS, and VANDU at the time, made a point of going out in advance to talk to people in the back alleys about Insite."

Former city hall official Learey said that non-profits working in the Downtown Eastside save taxpayers millions of dollars because they are able to bring stability to people with extreme health issues. "To eliminate those services would cost the health care and policing services far more than is currently spent in the community. Critics are too quick to jump on those that provide services that few others dare to provide."

Insite employee Grigg said PHS workers have rallied around Townsend and Evans, and have a renewed sense of the value of their own work. He believes that success made the PHS directors too confident and lax when it came how they spent the administration fees.

In an essay Grigg wrote on the PHS crisis, Grigg concluded: "They screwed up and there are enough people in power who hate them for their activism and lack of bureaucratic process that have been waiting, salivating for this moment.

"Again, I don't deny the problem of excesses, nor do I defend it. But I do forgive whatever it is, maybe it's the moment of allowing themselves to believe in their untouchableness. It's undeniable that these people are world changers… Forgiveness, therefore, is readily given."

*Name corrected from Griggs to Grigg. Apr. 2, 8:30 a.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Housing

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