Opinion

With Portland Hotel Society in Crosshairs, Who Will Take Risks?

Province has yet to make its case, but a chill is already falling on DTES.

By Ian Gill 4 Mar 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Ian Gill's Tyee column, The Poor Mouth, appears every two weeks or so. Gill lives and writes in Vancouver, and works on social innovation initiatives. Find his previous pieces in The Tyee here, and find him on Twitter @gillwave.

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Couple resting in a Downtown Eastside alley: PHS has innovated to serve 'a population that is challenged, and challenging' says one housing advocate. Photo by popeye logic from Your BC: The Tyee's Photo Pool.

As The Tyee is reporting today, Rich Coleman is in the final stages of ordering a drone flight over Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. His intended target will be the Portland Hotel Society and his weapon of choice is likely to be a court filing leading to the society being placed in receivership.

Coleman is British Columbia's deputy premier and, most pertinent in this case, minister responsible for housing. That means he is the minister in charge of BC Housing.

Last November, BC Housing -- a major funder of PHS -- ordered Deloitte to do an arm's-length audit of the society after conducting its own review of PHS's management of 17 different government-funded programs.

PHS, a non-profit society, provides social housing and support for people with mental illnesses and chronic substance-abuse issues on the Downtown Eastside. It operates Insite, a supervised safe-injection site, in partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health.

"From the get-go, PHS has provided innovative services to a population that is challenged, and challenging, and very difficult to serve -- and they've done it well," says veteran Downtown Eastside (DTES) housing advocate Karen O'Shannacery. But O'Shannacery, executive director of Lookout Society, acknowledges that the PHS leadership has been "aggressive. They've pushed the boundaries when it comes to funding and to service delivery models."

Another long-time observer of the DTES tells me, "Portland's pushiness has made it many enemies, even among people who should be its natural allies. And the pushy way of working eventually catches up with you."

When the audit was ordered last fall, Mark Townsend, the society's executive director, told the Vancouver Sun: "I see this review as a great opportunity for us. Deloitte has been really great with us, and any time I can get a consultant for free I'm happy."

If the government does force PHS into receivership in the next few days, Townsend will be anything but happy. He claimed last year there was no suggestion of impropriety, just an issue of how funds were allocated and accounted for. I was assured last week there's a lot more at issue than that, or at least that will be the government's position. "This is going to make DERA look like child's play," a source told me.

DERA, or the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, fell foul of BC Housing a few years ago and was sued by BC Housing. Now, it's the Portland Housing Society's turn. Without access to the results of the audit, or to potential court filings, it's hard to know how much of this will prove to be fire, and how much just more smoke that helps obscure a naturally conservative government's disdain for street-level activism on behalf of a community it wishes would just go away.

Contrasting cultures

PHS has made its mark in part because its leadership -- Townsend and his partner Liz Evans, in particular -- have been articulate, unafraid, forceful, and not exactly known for self doubt. Funding models seldom reward the brave, or the brash.

"In the supervision-obsessed world of government grants, every nickel has to fall into a certain column. There isn't a non-profit organization worth its salt that doesn't struggle with the definitions of what expense should fall in what column," says my long-time DTES observer.

"Advocacy is one of the things that Portland and a few other non-profits on the DTES do very effectively, and advocacy won't be a line item anywhere in their government-approved budgets. While Portland's advocacy often gets results, it also makes enemies, especially when you target the people who are cutting your cheques."

That's especially true when those cheques go in part to salaries that some folks think are out of line.

"One catch for Portland is that its leadership is very well paid, and everybody on the DTES knows this," says my arm's-length critic. "There are also many others working on behalf of the poor on the DTES who are very handsomely compensated. If you're going to advocate for the poor, it's helpful if you're not getting rich while you do it."

Maybe, maybe not. My view is that if you want to attract talented people to tackle some of the toughest challenges of our time, then pay them well to produce real results. By that standard, the PHS leadership might be underpaid, at least relative to a lot of bureaucrats and politicians whose pensioned sinecures aren't exactly synonymous with outcomes related to innovation and creativity.

Anyway, the audit will out, and if it's ugly, we'll know soon enough. "A lot of people on the DTES won't be surprised that BC Housing thinks Portland has taken things too far," says one source.

Innovating in the trenches

But what risks being lost in the inevitable Sturm und Drang about accountability and the need to safeguard public finances will be the urgent need to continue to disrupt the status quo for far too many people in the DTES, people for whom even the work of PHS and many other social services agencies isn't enough.

"Big bureaucracies like BC Housing don't always execute very well. Non-profits usually do a pretty good job of innovating on a shoestring," says my source.

But that shoestring is getting shorter. O'Shannacery told me that where organizations like hers were able to charge up to 15 per cent in administration costs on projects they managed, that's been cut to 10 per cent and there are moves to tighten that even further, all in face of even greater demands for outcomes that are being offloaded onto fragile service organizations.

Along with the Harper government's attacks on environmental organizations that it accuses of funding anti-development advocacy, an attack on PHS is sure to create an even greater chill on innovation and advocacy on behalf of a population that surely needs more, not less, of both.

One of the things about drone attacks is that, even when they hit the intended target, a lot of collateral harm is done. If the PHS or its leadership have outright broken the law or cooked the books to anyone's personal advantage, then those chips deserve to fall where they do, although there's no evidence thus far that they've done anything untoward at all. But whatever comes to light, this remains true: Places like the Downtown Eastside need more chutzpah -- individual, and organizational.

Maxim Gorky once said, "The madness of the brave is the wisdom of life." We need a lot more wisdom for living in the harsh realities of the Downtown Eastside, and that means we need to find how to reward the brave, not punish them.

"We need to foster a system that encourages innovation," says O'Shannacery. "Instead, we have a system that pushes back."  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Housing

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