A confidential report commissioned by the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) suggests more than $5 billion is being spent every year on the city’s social safety net, despite worsening results.
Global News has obtained an executive summary of the “social impact audit” produced by Alberta-based tech company HelpSeeker, which describes itself as a startup “focused on accelerating the digital transformation of the social safety net to maximize its equitable outcomes.”
Neither the summary nor the full 100-plus page report, which Global News has not reviewed, have been released publicly.
According to the summary, $5.1 billion was spent on Vancouver’s “social safety net” in 2020, equating to about $7,200 per Vancouver resident or $14 million per day. The executive summary does not specifically define what is being included as a part of the city’s social safety net.
There have been questions about the $5 billion figure considering HelpSeeker included around $2 billion of direct federal transfers that go to all residents of Vancouver. This includes child tax benefits, Old Age Security, Employment Insurance and Canada Pension Plan.
The organization also used the budgets of non-profits and charities providing services to the entire province, and not just those delivering service to the Downtown Eastside.
The financial figure also includes funding for Burnaby Search and Rescue, which has an office in Vancouver but has nothing to do with social service delivery.
“We very much question the assumptions made to generate the figure,” a statement from Attorney General’s ministry reads.
“We all recognize the challenges people are facing and opportunities to strengthen and coordinate how services are delivered, and that’s best accomplished by working together and having informed discussions with partners.”
It says the funding provides for a “copious amount” of resources and services, it states, which “may not be allocated appropriately or managed well,” pointing to mounting overdose deaths and entrenched homelessness.
Four separate City of Vancouver departments and six provincial ministries are involved in the city’s social safety net, which is hampered by a lack of communication and coordination those government agencies and social service providers, the report argues.
“Because no one is responsible for overseeing Vancouver’s social services sector in a centralized manner, many of the service providers operate in separate silos — meanwhile, community members dealing with the health system report confusion, persistent barriers, and a lack of coordination between service providers,” the report states.
“Better cross-sector collaboration and coordination is needed to minimize the duplication of efforts and better redirect resources that are currently assigned to ineffective (or even counter-productive) activities.”
The report further pointed to an incongruity between “generous funding” for social services meant to address the “symptoms of poverty,” while “there is comparatively little funding reserved for proactive measures” to help at-risk youth, vulnerable families and single parents or people with mental health and substance use disorders seeking immediate treatment.
Of the $5-billion figure in 2019, $1.46 billion was spent by charities and non-profits with a primary focus on social issues like homelessness and poverty, $406 million of that money in the Downtown Eastside.
The report found all three levels of government spent more than a quarter billion dollars on a dozen properties in 2020 and 2021. The average cost to operate each unit of social housing in the city was more than $3,000 per month according to City of Vancouver figures, it reported.
“However, there is no publicly available breakdown showing how staffing costs are allocated and what services are included,” the report said.
HelpSeeker’s data also reveals Vancouver’s three largest social housing operators, Atira, Portland Hotel Society and RainCity, spent almost $158 million in 2021, more than half of the money covering wages and employee benefits.
A further breakdown of the $5-billion total, including funding sources and program spending, was not included in the executive summary.
The VPD declined an interview request to answer questions including why the city’s police department commissioned an audit of social services.
The executive summary, however, said the VPD was “invested in the city’s social safety net” and that the audit could “promote transparency, accountability and collaboration, thereby setting the groundwork for a better, more coordinated service delivery model.”
“The VPD’s aspiration with this report is to improve the situation for those suffering most,” it adds.
BC Liberal Opposition Leader Kevin Falcon said it was “shocking” that $100 million per week was being spent on social services in the city, despite worsening results.
“I’m really concerned about is this government wants to spend more money doing more of the same thing,” he said.
“We need a total change in approach or we are going to continue seeing Vancouver and the social conditions there just worsening.”
The current model, he said, lacks transparency and accountability, and has no key performance indicators to demonstrate whether the money spent was achieving the desired result, he added.
Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira — the only of three housing providers named to respond to a request for comment — questioned the figures in the report, which she said undercounted the number of units her non-profit operates by a factor of three.
“If they’ve got some basic math wrong, what are the other issues with the report?” she said.
Abbott said all of Atira’s spending is documented and audited annually for its funders, and that it would have opened its books to HelpSeeker if it had been asked.
But she said police appeared to have commissioned the report without inviting anyone else to participate.
“If they had collaborated with BC Housing, the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Coastal Health, they may have had all that information, it sounds to me like this report has been done sort of secretly,” she said.
“I don’t understand that. When we’re talking about lack of transparency, why is the VPD commissioning this report secretly without asking for information and trying to get information off websites … this information does exist, they just haven’t asked for it, or they haven’t gone to the right places to get it.”
Abbott said the report also appears not to have looked at policy decisions such as welfare rates, availability of housing or provision of “safe” drug supply and their effects on the city’s most vulnerable.
Incoming B.C. Premier David Eby’s office said he was not available for an interview, despite requests made last week.
Vancouver is not the first city HelpSeeker has commissioned a social impact audit for.
Last year, the Edmonton Police Service, at the direction of that city’s council, hired the company to produce a similar report.
That report found about $7.5 billion going into social supports in Edmonton every year.
— with files from Rumina Daya