Delivered to the Metro Vancouver Future of the Region 2008 Sustainability Summit

….With hindsight, it’s obvious that a series of ill-advised government policies drove people into a community that lacked both the capacity and the infrastructure to respond practically or politically. Having stripped the community of leadership and torn out its soul, the city then began to stuff the void with people who weren’t welcome anywhere else. That unfortunate tradition continues today: there seems to be an unwritten policy to drive prostitution towards the Downtown Eastside, away from Mount Pleasant and the West End.

Inevitably, the Downtown Eastside has became a dubious sanctuary for those with few choices. While historically the area has always welcomed misfits, a criminal element eventually emerged. With cuts to income assistance, crimes of desperation have increasingly plagued its streets.

Millions—if not tens of millions—of dollars have been spent trying to fix the Downtown Eastside. Where are the results? Unraveling and remedying the seven decades’ worth of misguided government policies that have led to the area’s many problems is proving to be a tougher proposition than anyone imagined.

When it comes to providing social housing for people with low or no income, government funding is certainly critical—and appreciated. But history would seem to indicate that government involvement in the many other complexities attached to intractable social problems is often counter-productive.

What the area needs is not more government policies, interventions or handouts. Instead, the approach I’m recommending—indeed, the one I’m taking—is one I’ve learned through my work with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada: That any kind of assistance must be based on dialogue with the community and its leaders.

Simply put, we must begin to talk to the people who live there. We have to learn from the community we’re trying to help, just as they are learning from us. There needs to be a mutual exchange of information. The idea is that education works both ways; the focus is on empowering people to help themselves. Consistently, dialogue with the community on health, housing, economic self-sufficiency and cultural development has been the key to success. …