The City of Vancouver has ended a controversial contract it awarded to a group of activists to help with sidewalk cleanliness at a Downtown Eastside encampment that exploded in size this past summer.
When Vancouver police ceased supporting city engineering workers in their daily cleaning of the unit block to 300 block of East Hastings Street July 1, the number of tents in the area grew rapidly, prompting a warning from Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services that the buildup of structures constituted a major safety hazard.
Read more: Vancouver fire chief orders DTES tent city to be cleared, cites ‘catastrophic’ safety risk
Before Fire Chief Karen Fry’s July 25 order for the tent city to be cleared due to a “catastrophic” safety risk, the city’s Arts, Culture and Community Services (ACCS) team awarded the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) a $320,000 contract for a six-month Block Stewardship Pilot Program, with the goal of developing an alternative street cleaning process.
VANDU said it entered into an informal agreement with the city July 1 and started work immediately, before signing the contract mid-month.
Since then, VANDU Block Stewardship Program lead Al Fowler and other Downtown Eastside residents have been earning up to $20 per hour to sweep the block.
“A lot of the residents have joined in too in keeping the areas clean,” Fowler told Global News on Nov. 4.
“It’s sort of brought the community together to do this.”
Robert Lee Holloway said he joined the broom program because he’s taken so much from the community and wanted to give back.
“There’s nobody better or worse, were all down here together, we all have to look out for each other,” Holloway told Global News.
When Global News requested an update on the VANDU contract work last month, the city said in an Oct. 19 email: “The Pilot Program has been empowering people who are experiencing homelessness and other DTES residents to keep sidewalks and doorways passable and clean for everyone.”
Jonquil Hallgate, who manages a building in the unit block of East Hastings, said the area doesn’t look any cleaner. She added it’s not a criticism of VANDU, but the reality of life on the Downtown Eastside.
“The enormity of it is that it can be clean for a few hundred yards and then five minutes after people have cleaned that, then there’s more stuff,” Hallgate told Global News on Nov. 4.
“They’re doing what they can but they would have to actually be out there 24 hours a day to make a significant difference.”
On Wednesday the City of Vancouver confirmed VANDU was given 30 days notice on Nov. 10 that the contract would end prior to Jan. 2023.
“After an interim assessment of the program, it is evident that VANDU placed emphasis on community development and individual empowerment rather than street cleaning,” reads a statement from the city.
“While this has value — and a forthcoming evaluation will provide further information for future consideration — the City requires a focus on cleaning, and as a transition, will engage with other community groups to provide cleaning services.”
VANDU told Global News it was disappointed but not surprised the funding was cut because the group had reported back to the city, and was honest about its activities.
In an interview Thursday, VANDU community organizer Vince Tao said dignified street cleaning work for people who need it was only one part of the pilot program.
“We were here to empower people to have a say in their community, that was what was in the contract and we fulfilled every piece of it,” he said.
It’s unclear how much VANDU was paid for the work it has completed so far.
The non-profit organization said it received about five months of contract cash, or upwards of $250,000 – while the city said it provided about 50 per cent, or $160,000 of the funding and will give VANDU a prorated amount for the transition period.
When asked how the money was spent, Tao said it was primarily going to the block leaders and residents involved in the dignified work programs plus “staffing costs for essentially doubling, tripling our capacity here at VANDU.”
Former Vancouver city councillor George Affleck said keeping the streets clean should be a priority and focus for the city’s engineering department, and doesn’t believe social grants should be given out for street cleaning.
“I think the priorities of government and the priorities of a non-profit may not always align and I think that might be a challenge in this case,” Affleck said in an interview Thursday.
“I think the city needs to think about those things when they’re putting out big contracts.”
Global News requested an interview with Lon LaClaire, the city’s general manager of Engineering Services, but staff did not make him available.
The city also did not make anyone from ACCS available for an interview. When asked why the VANDU cleaning contract was awarded by ACCS and not the engineering department, ACCS general manager Sandra Singh responded with a statement.
“ACCS was partnering with Engineering Services on a Council motion that directed staff to work with several community groups, one of which VANDU, to explore alternatives to VPD engagement in sidewalk cleaning,” the statement reads.
“When the Hastings encampment grew in early July and staff were working rapidly to try to deploy immediate response, ACCS and Engineering Services discussed with the community working group and the VANDU project arose from those discussions. ACCS worked closely with Engineering Services to outline the scope of work and management of the contract has been a collaborative endeavour between ACCS and Engineering Services.”
The city’s fire chief said buildings and exits remain blocked as winter approaches, and her biggest fear is being able to get Single-Room Occupancy (SRO) residents out in the event of a fire.
“It could be deadly to the occupants that are in the tent, it could be devastating and potentially deadly to the occupants in buildings,” Chief Fry told Global News.
VANDU said fire safety was part of the city contract and it worked with Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services before the chief’s order to train people on the block on how to use fire extinguishers.
In the coming weeks, the city said a request for proposals will be issued through its engineering department to non-profits experienced in delivering “focused cleaning programs.”
City crews will also continue their street cleaning efforts which have been removing more than 2,000 kilograms of materials from East Hastings each day.
Even though its block stewardship funding has been eliminated, VANDU said it won’t abandon the people of the Downtown Eastside.
“We’re going to continue doing our work, we have a community to serve,” Tao said.
Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim declined an interview request.
Sim’s communications director, Taylor Verrall, stated in an Nov. 11 email that the “Mayor and Council are still awaiting recommendations from City staff regarding the VANDU contract.”