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Vancouver police officers in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, in January, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Vancouver police are calling for a new body to oversee, scrutinize and co-ordinate all the social services that go into the Downtown Eastside, saying there’s a massive amount of money being spent there but little sign it is having any effect.

But among the many critics of the methodology of the report was the provincial Public Safety Minister, who called it “sensationalized and misleading,” and Vancouver’s new mayor.

Chief Adam Palmer presented two reports Wednesday to bolster his contention that there is little attention paid to outcomes, despite billions spent.

“Who’s there, overseeing the whole thing?” asked Chief Palmer. “The lack of co-ordination and the piecemeal approach we’ve taken – a lot of people are running off in disparate silos. Somebody from government needs to be in charge of this place.”

But his argument was muted by criticism of the methodology in one of the reports.

The report, written by consulting company HelpSeeker Technologies, concluded that $5-billion is spent on social services in the city. To get to the figure, HelpSeeker included $2-billion in direct federal and provincial transfers to people for programs, ranging from Employment Insurance payments to pensions, along with a wide range of other spending. The City of Vancouver’s entire firefighting budget of $130-million is included as part of the $5-billion total, as is the Vancouver Police Department budget of $317-million.

Mayor Ken Sim said the city would not be relying on the report’s evidence or data.

“I don’t think it’s very useful. We had a hard time sourcing the numbers. After we went through the report, it prompted more questions than answers,’’ said Mr. Sim, who was elected last month on a tough-on-crime platform that included a promise of 100 more police.

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said in a statement the government had been working directly with front-line service providers to rebuild supports for people who live in the Downtown Eastside but there is more work to do.

“Services are strengthened and co-ordinated by having informed discussions with community partners on the ground – not by spreading sensationalized and misleading numbers,’’ he said.

Chief Palmer defended the decision by his department to commission the report, saying police know Vancouver better than any other single agency, and officers see all of the problems.

“We have a unique picture of the roller coaster of life,” he said. “We’ve got the best view of it of anybody.”

Because of that, he said, police see how people who need help get shuffled from hospital to the street and back again, plus much more.

Chief Palmer also brushed aside criticism of the methodology, saying it is sound and has been used by many other agencies and levels of government.

A second report, written by police to summarize the HelpSeeker information and to outline the department’s thoughts on what to do, was also presented.

Green Party Councillor Pete Fry was dismayed by the two reports, calling them a “dog whistle” that appeared aimed at softening the ground for cuts to social services. “To frame the spending here as all from the Downtown Eastside seems irresponsible and frankly disingenuous.”

University of Toronto professor Rob Gillezeau, who worked in B.C. until recently, said the police decision to spend money on the HelpSeeker research and to lobby for changes was questionable.

“Perhaps the most disturbing piece of this misadventure is the idea that police departments should be using their scarce resources to hire third parties to try and do the job already being done by provincial and federal civil services,” he wrote in a tweet.

Vancouver police initially contracted HelpSeeker to write the 82-page report for $149,000 in August, 2021. The author of that report, which was leaked this week, stood beside Chief Palmer at the Wednesday news conference and urged people to start having a serious conversation about whether the money being spent in Vancouver by various levels of government, along with private charities, is being used productively.

“It’s up to you as a city to decide whether you are getting the outcomes you want,” said Alina Turner, the founder of HelpSeeker, adding she had a brother who died in Vancouver in the Downtown Eastside.

The HelpSeeker report notes $1.5-billion is spent by charitable groups whose defined focus is community and social services, but Dr. Turner acknowledged the figure catches some charities whose spending may be outside Vancouver but then doesn’t include the spending of non-profits that are not registered as charities.

There was considerable friction between Vancouver police and the previous city council when that council decided not to give the police the full budget amount requested in 2021. Police appealed that decision to the province and got $5-million back.

B.C.’s supportive-housing system faces challenges in preventing people from getting entrenched in cycle of homelessness

Last month, in an unprecedented move, the Vancouver police union endorsed a political party – the ABC party that now dominates council – in the lead-up to the election Oct. 15.

Chief Palmer said the report does not single out individual groups for criticism, because the report is more about a system failure than anything else.

The police summary names the three largest non-profit housing providers in the region and details their spending.

In addition, the police summary repeats criticisms that have been levelled at the city and province recently by resident groups unhappy about new social housing or drug-user services put into their neighbourhoods.

“The available evidence suggests that the current approach is ineffective. As revealed by the HelpSeeker report, there appears to be a copious amount of resources, services, and funding. However, there is a growing recognition that they may not be allocated appropriately or managed well. This impacts public safety in Vancouver,” says the police-generated summary.

“In Vancouver, there is an incongruity between areas of the social services sector that receive the most funding and the social solutions that are proven to have positive outcomes. While generous funding is allocated to reactive measures to alleviate the effects or symptoms of poverty, there is comparatively little funding reserved for proactive measures intended to help vulnerable families and single parents, victims of intimate partner violence, youth at risk, or persons with substance use and/or mental-health disorders who desire treatment-on-demand services.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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