Peer-based program takes alternative approach to security in Vancouver’s DTES

Click to play video: 'Program offers local alternative to security in Downtown Eastside'
Program offers local alternative to security in Downtown Eastside
A unique program in the Downtown Eastside is billing itself as a local solution for safety and security. Mission Possible's "MP Neighbours" program employs locals to patrol the neighbourhood and de-escalate tense situations. As Aaron McArthur reports, demand for its services is growing as homelessness and street disorder become more considerable challenges – Nov 17, 2023

Gordon Bird is greeted with smiles and waves as he makes his rounds through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

He’s a familiar face to many in the neighbourhood as he patrols the streets, picking up needles, checking on people who look like they might need help and sometimes just providing a person to talk to.

“I’ve had a lot of good stories too, people just need to talk … then they tell me, ‘Well, thank you for listening,'” he told Global News.

“There’s a lot of struggle every day, the struggle is looking for food, looking for shelter, they get moved around, displaced a lot of the time — it is a big issue, but we also have to keep the streets safe as well.”

Click to play video: 'Mission Possible program pause'
Mission Possible program pause

Bird is a part of a now decade-old program called Mission Possible Neighbours, that hires people with lived experience in the community to provide an alternative form of security and outreach in the DTES.

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Sometimes interactions are as simple as helping a person find a nearby shelter or offering someone a cigarette and a meal voucher. Other times, they’re called on to step into more serious situations.

“Part of my job is to de-escalate situations where there is an argument happening between two people. If I see any high violence happening, instantly I call 911,” he said.

“I talk with community members with emotion, because they are people, they have different stories, they are from different parts of the province, they have different needs.”

Bird, who was homeless for a time himself, said empathy and connection are key to the job, and that sometimes the solution is letting people know they’re being treated as a human, not a number.

Over the year, MP Neighbours have de-escalated at least 113 situations, made 464 service referrals and picked up more than 12,000 needles.

Matthew Smedley is executive director and CEO of the non-profit Mission Possible, which specializes in helping some of the city’s most vulnerable people reconnect with employment.

He told Global News there is a growing demand for the MP Neighbours service.

Click to play video: 'Mission Possible: Helping disadvantaged people find employment'
Mission Possible: Helping disadvantaged people find employment

With conditions on the street tougher than ever, he said there is a growing recognition that traditional ways of addressing safety and security in the complex neighbourhood aren’t always working.

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“It’s person-to-person support; we’re trying to connect people with services they might be in need of an help to elevate them, and at the same time creating employment opportunities,” he said.

“We’ve definitely seen the number of de-escalations increasing, and for us that’s a really key part of what we are providing, is some real understanding and empathy, and really to help people navigate some of the conflicts and different issues that arise in this community and try to do that in a careful and thoughtful way.”

Smedley said the program acts as a “stepping stone” for people ready to take the next step back into the workforce.

Participants who have completed the Mission Possible program have gone on to work in traditional security or in outreach or social service sector, he said.

Click to play video: 'Vancouver non-profit connecting people with employment'
Vancouver non-profit connecting people with employment

And interest is high in the community.

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“We have hundreds of people coming through our doors, and its actually doubled from last year the number of people who are wanting to move into work,” he said.

Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association executive director Landon Hoyt said the BIA partnered with Mission Possible to create the program a decade ago, recognizing the neighbourhood needed a different approach than other parts of the city.

“At the end of the day they are doing a similar thing to what the police or emergency services would be doing, but it is how they are doing it, it’s what they are saying to the community members, how they are helping them move along, what services they are referring them to,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Month of Giving Back: Mission Possible'
Month of Giving Back: Mission Possible

Hoyt called the program a success, saying member businesses appreciate the regular check-ins they have with the MP Neighbours, and that many of them hire them independently for side jobs like walking people to cars.

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But he acknowledges the program is only one tool, and one only able to address immediate challenges businesses are facing, not systemic problems.

“We’re also working with our partners at the city, the VPD, the province to tackle the larger social issues longer term, really pushing and advocating for those higher-level changes that will make an impact, that will house people, that will provide the proper health services, that will help reduce the needs on the street so our businesses aren’t facing the day to day issues they are,” he said.

MP Neighbours like Bird, meanwhile, keep pounding the pavement in an effort to make their community better.

“I love my job,” he said.

“I do it because it needs to be done. It’s not pleasant sometimes, but it needs to be done.”

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