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Downtown Eastside businesses look to improve relations with residents

A homeless man walks through a back lane in the West End neighbourhood in Vancouver, British Columbia, Saturday, November 16, 2013.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Businesses in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside are collaborating with local activists and community groups to improve relations with local residents.

The Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Area (BIA) will launch a series of workshops called the CommunityWise Social Inclusion Program later this month. The program is aimed at helping small businesses interact with some of the vulnerable people in the downtown neighbourhood and encourage support of the local economy.

"We really wanted to be proactive and try to work with community partners to find … a way forward where we could communicate better," said Wes Regan, executive director of the Hastings Crossing BIA.

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The initiative comes on the heels of an incident in which a Tim Hortons employee threw a bucket of water on a homeless person who had been panhandling outside the store, but is not a result of it.

Mr. Regan explained that the need to build relationships between businesses and community members became apparent during an anti-gentrification movement in 2013 and early 2014. At the time, some businesses in the neighbourhood were picketed and vandalized.

With funds from the city, the BIA partnered with local advocacy groups and professional organizations to develop CommunityWise workshops.

The workshops will draw on existing examples of businesses working with residents in the neighbourhood.

One of them is Recipes for Success, a local human resources service that specializes in social enterprises. It is part of the Potluck Café Society, which for more than a decade has provided employment and training opportunities for people who struggle to find employment due to health or social issues.

Tara Taylor, manager of Recipes for Success, said CommunityWise is an opportunity to inspire neighbouring business to give back to the community through employment opportunities.

"If every business were to make opportunities with more part-time positions … I think it would make radical change in the economy and to people's self-worth," Ms. Taylor said.

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CommunityWise workshops will teach participants how to work with people who have mental illness or struggle with addiction, how to access community services if conflicts arise, and understand the social history of the Downtown Eastside.

Workshops are open to business owners, employees and community members in the Downtown Eastside. The events are also designed to be an opportunity for people in these groups to socialize and build relationships to create a friendlier neighbourhood.

Gentrification of low-income neighbourhoods within big cities is not a problem unique to Vancouver, but Mr. Regan said he wants Vancouver to be an example for other cities.

"What we're hoping we can achieve here is a model that has the potential to be adopted and replicated in other communities that have the same challenges," he said.

An information session about the CommunityWise workshops will be held on Feb. 19 at the Lost and Found Café. The event will be followed by the workshops held on evenings throughout March.

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