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The block in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside that includes the region's busiest overdose-prevention site, a street market and a credit union that serves some 4,000 low-income people.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

It’s the stretch that has come to emblemize Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, with its crowded sidewalks displaying the neighbourhood’s high rates of drug use, poverty and untreated mental illness. It’s the area tour buses route around, to shield from wide-eyed tourists the part of town that locals insist every year has gotten worse.

It’s the block of East Hastings Street between Carrall and Columbia, currently home to the region’s busiest overdose-prevention site, a street market and a credit union for low-income clients – an ecosystem unto itself. Pending permit approvals, that could all make way for a new social-housing project catering largely to Indigenous families.

In a neighbourhood long resistant to change, the early project details have drawn a wide range of feedback. Some are heralding the project as long overdue, some are cautiously optimistic and others – stung by the gentrifying effects of past projects – are skeptical of any new development in the area at all.

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“They’re trying to move the addicts away from the Downtown Eastside,” said Jeff Hornal, who has lived in the area most of his life and volunteers at the street market that would be displaced by the development.

“They might give us a [new] space, but it’s not going to be in the block, which is the beat of the street. Have you seen the back alley? Have you seen [the overdose-prevention site]? Where are those people going to go? They’re slowly taking away all the streets.”

The housing project, announced by the B.C. government in June, is a partnership between the province and the Aboriginal Land Trust, a non-profit organization made up of representatives from the Vancouver Native Health Society (VNHS) and the Lu’ma Native Housing Society, established last year to build more housing for Indigenous people.

The new building would include about 50 units of single-room supportive housing, operated by RainCity Housing, and another 50 of “affordable rental homes” for Indigenous people, operated by the Lu’ma Native Housing Society. (Rental rates are not yet known.)

The VNHS would operate a healing centre at this site, offering both traditional healing and contemporary, Western medical services.

Current residents of the aging Shaldon Hotel supportive housing units, located above the overdose-prevention site, would be assisted with finding alternate accommodations and invited back to the new building when it is complete, at no rent increase, the government said.

Kent Patenaude, president of the Lu’ma Native Health Society and a spokesman for the project, said the overarching goal is to create a safe and inclusive space “that will welcome everyone, with dignity, respect and honour.”

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Architects, for example, are consulting with representatives from the local Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations in an effort to “tell the story of the land and its people” through design and artwork, Mr. Patenaude said.

“We want to ensure that we celebrate the rich history of those three host First Nations and, hopefully, make visible what was made invisible by colonization,” he said.

The affordable rental component is expected to consist mostly of two-bedroom family units, mixed with a few one-bedroom, three-bedroom and studio units.

Sarah Blyth, executive director at the Overdose Prevention Society, middle, calls 911 as other overdose prevention site staff members care for an overdose victim, Thursday, June 27, 2019.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Sarah Blyth has spent much of the past few years on this block, first as manager of the Downtown Eastside Street Market (since renamed the Four Directions Trading Post) and now as the executive director of the neighbouring overdose-prevention site. She said she is grateful that Indigenous housing is being prioritized, and confident that the existing services at the location will be relocated without issue.

“Our main concern is making sure people are safe in the middle of the [overdose] crisis,” she said. “I know that [the city] will be committed to helping us transition so that there will be no interruption of services.”

The City of Vancouver says staff are already looking for suitable alternative locations for the street market in case the project goes ahead. Vancouver Coastal Health, which operates the overdose-prevention site, said future decisions will be made based on where services are most needed. Pigeon Park Savings, the credit union that serves some 4,000 people living on low incomes, has already announced it will relocate two blocks to the east.

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Should the project be approved, these services would still be able to operate where they are for about a year.

Janet Charlie has been involved with the street market in various capacities for more than five years and has followed it to each location to which it has been moved. She said she is frustrated that it is uprooted every time it seems to find its rhythm. Moving the market too far from where vendors live, she said, would be an obstacle to the street vending many depend on to get by.

She’s also skeptical of the promise of affordable rental housing.

“They say that, but that doesn’t really happen,” she said. “Look at that building over there.”

Ms. Charlie gestures in the direction of Sequel 138, a housing development a block over that had promised “affordable” home ownership and social housing during construction in 2014. Many of those who bought in the building ended up selling for profit; several one-bedroom units listed for sale last week ranged from $385,000 to $519,000, while rentals went for about $1,500 for 450 square feet.

Karen Ward, a long-time resident of the Downtown Eastside who advises the city on drug policy and poverty reduction in the neighbourhood, understands the distrust.

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She references the United We Can bottle depot, which was moved from the block in 2014 to an industrial area about two kilometres away to make way for social housing. Some locals felt it was an effort to push binners out of the area, though managers at the bottle depot supported the move, saying it allowed the business to expand and hire more people.

“Change is scary, because everyone has experienced change that was against them,” Ms. Ward said. “So there is that fear. It hasn’t gone well. But we simply cannot keep going as we are."

Ms. Ward called the proposed social-housing project “wonderful and long overdue” and said she hopes more like it will follow.

Wylie Briscoe has lived at the Shaldon Hotel for about two years. He says he supports the new project.

“I think it would be a good change for this whole situation here," he said, leaving his building recently. He pauses to look around. "I mean, it’s pretty clear why.”

Since plans for the project were announced in June, developers have received numerous requests for more information.

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“We will, of course, accommodate all of those requests,” Mr. Patenaude said.

He said he is hopeful a development-permit application will be ready by the end of summer.

Ms. Ward said it will be imperative that the community is involved and informed at every step of the way.

“The lack of information is what generates fear,” she said. “We don’t have to be scared of this. … Instead of complaining about exclusion, let’s jump in.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated United We Can was moved about two blocks in away in 2014. In fact, it was moved about two kilometres away.
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