It was intended to measure the cost of the city’s flawed social safety net and the Vancouver Police Department’s place in that system.
But on Wednesday Mayor Ken Sim dismissed a police-commissioned report that pegged social services spending in Vancouver at $5 billion. The report has been called flawed, misleading and opaque by some city councillors.
“We’ve gone through the report, and the more we go through it, I don’t think it’s very useful,” Sim told reporters during a news conference. “We had a hard time sourcing the numbers.”
The Vancouver Police Department spent nearly $150,000 to commission the report, "Igniting Transformational Systems Change Through Policing," from a Calgary company called HelpSeeker Technologies. An initial media report on a leaked executive summary included a comment from BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon, who called the $5-billion figure “shocking” and said government needs to make changes.
But the $5-billion figure includes $2 billion in direct federal transfers to citizens across the city — payments like old age security, employment insurance, disability and social assistance. It also includes the city’s entire police budget, as well as the budgets for the fire department and Vancouver’s office of emergency services. It scoops up a wide range of charitable funding, some of which may apply to areas outside the city, along with spending by social services agencies, housing providers and other organizations.
Alina Turner, the co-president of HelpSeeker and the author of the report, said the $5-billion figure may not be completely accurate because the second phase of the project, which would include refining the data, hasn’t happened yet. She said she and her team stand by their company’s methodology.
Turner said the report was intended to help Vancouverites determine if they're “getting value for the money that [they're] spending, because there’s finite resources.”
Although the report purported to measure “social safety net” spending throughout the city, VPD Chief Adam Palmer focused on problems in the Downtown Eastside in his remarks at a press conference Wednesday.
Palmer called for a single position to be created to oversee the neighbourhood and examine how public funds are spent there.
“This HelpSeeker analysis suggests there is already a lot of money in the system,” said Palmer. “By their analysis, $14 million a day is spent just to fund Vancouver’s social safety net. But there’s also an increasing body of evidence to suggest this money isn’t being used in a way that best serves the people who need it most.”
Coun. Pete Fry was skeptical about the entire exercise.
“The idea that income supplements for a disabled senior in Killarney… are lumped into the outrage-inducing $5-billion social impact audit cast against a literal backdrop of the Downtown Eastside is actually outrageous,” he told The Tyee.
Fry was recently re-elected to city council, along with fellow Green Coun. Adriane Carr and OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle. But all other council seats and the mayoralty are held by members of the ABC party, a party that promised to hire 100 more police officers and trim the city’s budget.
“I worry this report has been delivered with the expectation it will influence the new council’s decision-making — especially when it comes to fulfilling their promise of increasing police funding, and cutting taxes,” Fry said.
Sim says hiring 100 more police officers remains a priority, but he said the HelpSeeker report isn’t a strong enough document to underpin an additional funding ask from the VPD.
“For any group that needs funding, they have to present a very strong case,” Sim said. “And if they can do that, then fine, we’ll make it happen. In this case, it doesn’t look like this report does that, so I wouldn’t worry about this report getting more funding.”
Sim said he and his team had particular questions about a $139-million figure in the report that supposedly comes from the City of Vancouver.
“They also reference Fire and Rescue, but they don’t talk about how much they allocated from Fire and Rescue… and now we have to do a lot more digging to understand that report.”
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, sharply rising inflation for everything from housing to food and a looming economic downturn, Canadian cities are grappling with an increase in homelessness and poverty. That’s happening alongside a movement that calls for police budgets to be frozen or reduced and the money redirected to social services that could alleviate poverty or chronic health conditions.
Reports created by HelpSeeker have given police departments a tool to push back against calls to redirect police funding elsewhere.
In Edmonton, a similar report by HelpSeeker pegged social spending at an enormous $7.5 billion. As in the Vancouver report, HelpSeeker included a wide range of spending, including the police and ambulance budget and payments like old age security, employment insurance, disability and social assistance.
The language used by Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee and the VPD are similar. McFee said the $7.5-billion figure was equal to building 15 Rogers Place arenas every year. VPD communications materials compared the $5 billion to “NASA’s annual budget for the International Space Station” or “the construction costs of three brand-new Dallas Cowboys football stadiums every year.”
Rob Houle was part of a community safety well-being task force in Edmonton formed to look at the effectiveness of city policing. The task force recommended that funding for the police department be frozen and the funds reinvested “to support community safety initiatives, to tackle the opioid crisis, things like that.”
When McFee presented the HelpSeeker report with the $7.5-billion figure, “it really struck me as the Edmonton Police Service presenting this report as a misdirection.... ‘Look at all the other money that’s out there that is being wasted and squandered,’” Houle said.
The VPD has followed a similar approach, emphasizing its budget is a very small part of the overall $5-billion figure estimated by HelpSeeker.
The department estimates its share of Vancouver’s social safety net is six per cent: “for every dollar spent on policing, $15 is spent on other areas of Vancouver’s social safety net,” the department stated in an accompanying report called “Vancouver’s Social Safety Net: Rebuilding the Broken.”
Palmer told reporters the police department was the right agency to commission the report because the VPD is not “political” and can voice concerns that other organizations can’t. He said the report was not connected to upcoming police budget deliberations at Vancouver city council.
People who work in the Downtown Eastside are now concerned that the $5-billion figure has been erroneously linked to the cost of running much-needed health and social services in just one impoverished neighbourhood.
“The stamp of $5 billion and the DTES sticks,” Sarah Blyth, the executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society said in a Twitter post. “It’s a false political narrative and deserves an apology… from Chief Palmer.”
A previous analysis from 2014 pegged spending in the Downtown Eastside at around $1 million a day; the VPD says that spending is currently $1.1 million per day.
Sim said Downtown Eastside residents and agencies shouldn’t be worried that their funding might be cut because of the HelpSeeker report.
“There are a lot of amazing groups in the Downtown Eastside doing amazing work taking care of people who need a lot of help, and we are going to support them.”