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Donors Step Up After Vancouver Council Axes Funding to VANDU Art Program

Councillors said they had problems with how the drug user group handled a previous city contract.

Jen St. Denis 20 Jan 2023TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

Arts groups and individual donors are lining up to support the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users after city council voted against a $7,500 grant for an existing art program.

“It's a really nice gesture. And speaking with our community partners recently, those are the opinions that matter,” said Brittany Graham, the executive director of VANDU.

“When there are members concerned about our programming, I'm much more concerned about that than some councillor that hasn't even been to the Downtown Eastside.”

A GoFundMe fundraiser set up on Tuesday right after the council decision has now raised over $10,000 to replace the $7,500 grant. The documentary film festival DOXA, which also receives city cultural grants, has publicly voiced support for VANDU’s Art Table program. So has the non-profit UNIT/PITT Society for Art & Critical Awareness.

City councillors with the ABC party — which holds a majority on council — singled out VANDU from a long list of art and community groups who were also getting small grants. The problem wasn’t VANDU’s Art Table program, said ABC Coun. Brian Montague, but how VANDU had handled a previous city contract.

In July, VANDU accepted $320,000 to work with homeless people on East Hastings Street. A similar contract was given to the Overdose Prevention Society. City staff decided to end the contract with VANDU early because there wasn’t enough emphasis on cleaning the street. The city ended up providing $160,000 of the total contract because of the early termination.*

As she voted to cut the arts funding, ABC Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung said she didn’t think any “reasonable” member of the public would support continued funding for VANDU “when you’ve had such an egregious misuse of public funds.”

Kirby-Yung also cited media reports that stated VANDU had funnelled the money into its general revenue.

But Graham says VANDU did not misuse public funds when the grassroots organization accepted the contract to work with homeless people on East Hastings, and that money did not go into its general operations. While a Daily Hive column and news story alleged that the money was diverted to VANDU’s general operations, Graham said it was not contacted to provide comment for either of those stories.

“There are multiple councillors who are accusing us of misappropriation of funds without any actual evidence of this,” she said.

Montague introduced the motion “to direct staff to consider reassignment of funds earmarked to the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users in the amount of $7,500 to an alternate and appropriate organization for Indigenous-led and/or Indigenous-based programming.”

Green councillors Pete Fry and Adriane Carr and OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle voted against the amendment.

Boyle said the way the street cleaning grant was handled shouldn’t affect the much smaller grant for an existing program.

“The street cleaning grant was a new and very challenging effort that VANDU took on and it didn’t work out,” Boyle said.

“I am concerned about the politicization of us eliminating small grants for very vulnerable people like this on the floor of council.”

VANDU was started in 1998 to advocate for reforms to drug policies. Made up of current drug users, the organization often holds raucous protests and was at the forefront of pushing for harm reduction options like safe injection sites.

Recently, the organization has handed out tested cocaine, meth and heroin from its building on East Hastings Street to counter the tainted drug supply that is killing six British Columbians a day. The drug handout is illegal, but VANDU says it’s necessary to reduce the death toll and lobby for an expansion of safe supply programs.

VANDU is also a constant and harsh critic of the Vancouver Police Department and policing in the Downtown Eastside. ABC has pledged to increase VPD’s funding to hire more officers, and was endorsed by the Vancouver Police Union during the last election.

“The question is whether we want to support the Vancouver Network of Drug Users given their track record in the past — for not being able to follow the rules,” said ABC Coun. Lenny Zhou.

“For non-compliance, we should have rule enforcement and consequences.”

An alternative to street sweeps

Graham said the $320,000 Block Stewardship pilot project came out of an ongoing conflict between homeless people who live in tents on East Hastings and the city sanitation workers and police who were tasked with cleaning the street every day.

Those “cleaning” practices included throwing away tents, bedding and other belongings, a practice that often left homeless people without shelter. Sometimes people lost sentimental items like photographs and the ashes of their loved ones.

A coalition of Downtown Eastside advocacy groups, including VANDU, lobbied to “stop the sweeps.” In June 2022, the city apologized for the harm the daily street sweeps had caused residents, and in early July, the Vancouver Police Department stopped assigning officers to accompany sanitation workers.

VANDU started their contract with the city in July, but according to Graham street cleaning was only one component of the pilot program they proposed. VANDU wanted to take the time to build trust and a sense of community with unhoused people on the street. Handling the large contract and scope of work did strain VANDU’s existing staff and volunteers, Graham said, so there was a need to “start a whole new structure” related to the grant.

VANDU was also paying unhoused people a $20 stipend to spend an hour cleaning up the street — a payment Graham says is consistent with the BC Centre for Disease Control’s recommendation for hiring peer workers. Peer workers are people with lived experience of drug use or homelessness.

A similar contract was also given to the Overdose Prevention Society.

“As an organization working with people on the block who have been treated like garbage for a very long time, we knew it would take time and effort for people to trust us,” Graham said.

But after assessing VANDU’s effort, staff decided to cancel the six-month contract early.

“After an interim assessment of the program, it is evident that VANDU placed emphasis on community development and individual empowerment rather than street cleaning,” city staff told The Tyee in a statement.

The city now has a new request for proposals out for the street cleaning work that will close on Monday.

The Art Table funding goes towards paying an artist to work with VANDU members on art projects, including memorial pieces to commemorate VANDU members who have died.

“It just feels really pointed and quite vindictive, because the people that would be supported by this grant are members who drop in, and want to be a part of something joyful in a neighbourhood where there's a lot of ups and downs,” Graham said.

* Story updated on Jan. 20 at 11:05 a.m. to include information about the amount VANDU was paid because of the early termination of the Block Stewardship contract.  [Tyee]

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