Let's be "realistic" about ending homelessness, says Gregor Robertson

Post by Daniel Fontaine in


Vancouver's Mayor Robertson appears in the sobering documentary 'Streets of Plenty'

When it comes to the homelessness story in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, most of the media coverage is pretty predictable. The narrative goes something like this. There are thousands of homeless people wandering the streets and not enough is being done to help them. However, Corey Ogilvie, a Vancouver-based filmmaker and the brothers Misha & Alex Kleider (main subject & camera operator of the documentary), are breaking all those conventional rules when it comes to reporting on life in Canada's poorest postal code.

In their documentary that can be seen in its entirety on YouTube titled Streets of Plenty, the viewer is challenged to observe the Downtown Eastside in a very different way. Although there are times when the film feels a bit more like Rick Mercer meets 60 Minutes, it is one of the more interesting takes I've seen on what has clearly become a desperate situation.

The filmmaker and his subject Misha Kleider is trying to get a clear message across to viewers that providing homeless shelters for drug addicted individuals is not going to solve the neighbourhood's drug problems. There are many uncomfortable scenes throughout the film, including one in which a nurse at Insite, Canada'a only supervised injection site, helps Kleider with the mechanics of his first heroin injection.

Through the use of hidden cameras and time-lapse photography, you get to see what life is like in the Downtown Eastside in a way I believe no other filmmaker has captured. It's gritty, inspiring and depressing all at the same time.

In the last few minutes of the documentary, Kleider interviews Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson regarding his take on drug addiction and homelessness:

Misha Kleider: I lived on the streets for almost a month. I tried the hardest drugs out there. Crack, heroin. One thing that became very clear was that addiction is a major cause of homelessness. So if you're going to solve homelessness, you need to solve addiction.

Gregor Robertson: The addiction challenge is very difficult for us. It's a tough one to break. And uh...we're seeing some success now with the shelters and basically saying its okay, you can come in if your still using. You can use these shelters to at least get a good meal and get 8 hours of sleep.

Kleider: But 95% of addiction treatments fail. What's going to happen when you provide all these homeless addicts with free housing? Instead of dying from their addiction on the street, they are going to die from addiction in the free homes that you're giving them. But they are still going to die. That seems like a band-aid and not a solution.

Gregor Robertson: Well it's a band-aid. But if...uh...people are literally dying on the streets you got to look at what pieces you can support them on. I mean if you don't come in with a whole complement of support, then where is the hope? Until you work upstream, until we're working with people and making sure they don't go into that dead end of addiction, it's going to be damage control.

Kleider: Do you honestly think you can end homelessness?

Gregor Robertson: When I say end homelessness or that we...that we...do a lot better on addictions and for treatment. Uh..There is so much more that can be done. Can we ever get all the way there and to utopia? Let's be realistic. It's not going to be like that. We have got to have shelters and housing options that are permissive and that take people from where they are and meet them where they're at.

Kleider: Good Luck.

With the ominous sounds of guitar strings in the background, Kleider looks up in the air, with an exasperated expression in response to Robertson's answers to his questions.

As we reported here previously, the City of Vancouver has "unofficially" abandoned its internationally recognized Four Pillars Drug Strategy since Mayor Robertson was elected in 2008. Donald Macpherson, Vancouver's former Drug Policy Program Coordinator, quit a few months ago in order to work in the private sector. As for the Four Pillars Coalition chaired by the Mayor, it rarely convenes for a meeting. And when it does, the main focus of discussion is on the more politically palatable prevention pillar. Advocates for a second supervised injection site also appear to have given up hope this Mayor will support their request.

I'd recommend Streets of Plenty to anyone interested in knowing more about what life is like in the Downtown Eastside. You may not agree with these filmmaker's take on the situation, but it most certainly provides viewers with a perspective of this gritty neighbourhood that you don't always see in the mainstream media.


Lets be utterly realistic here, you cannot end addiction unless those that are addicted are in a stable environment. Unless those that are mentally ill and self medicating, or those that are using to help stave off cold and hunger have an environment where they can feel safe and are not subjected to the elements then how in the world can they be treated for their addictions or illness?

What we had before clearly failed completely, so at least this is an attempt not to abandon people.

Robertson said he'd end homelessness by 2015. Why is he abandoning that commitment now? It was a nice campaign slogan to help him defeat the NPA, but now that he's in government, he's backing down. I think the whole purpose behind the 4 pillars was that finding housing and solving drug addiction have to go hand in hand. You can't abandon finding solutions to drug addictions while you try to get social housing. It just means people will die. This is a great documentary. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

Addiction seems to be a permanent affliction. Very very few addicts ever recover. I suspect it is because they are not motivated. We are just poring good money down a rat hole as we set out to build so much social housing in the downtown east side. Some things are as they are.

This is a completely disingenuous argument and what's worse is you know better.

First of all you know the issue of addiction is almost completely outside the scope of municipal government. Addiction treatment is provincial jurisdiction and if the filmmaker and this site want to solve this they should be questioning the health authority and the provincial government.

Secondly, you also know the four pillars and just about every other authority in this area acknowledge that the reverse of your argument is true: you can't solve addiction without housing.

It's called housing first and the theory and experience show that without the solid ground of a place to live, solving addiction can't be done. It's that simple. Putting a homeless person into addiction treatment and then back out onto the street is like throwing the resource away. Pointless.

So the mayor isn't wrong in pointing to housing as groundwork for addiction solutions. That doesn't mean without treatment housing alone will work, but it provides the basis for more successful addictions work.

where does addiction begin? I saw my taxes being used to get a man who had never used heroin before start down that road. My taxes being used to fuel the cycle - not end it.
I saw my tax money flying out the door at the welfare office in the blink of an eye. Is this not a wake up for us? STOP giving money and needles to people who are addicted.
I can't help think there is a poverty-industrial complex at work - they live between the taxpayers and the homeless with neither's interest at heart. They are the NDP, VISION Vancouver and their funders and supporters. They are the Pivot Legal Society types, the RainCity Housing types, the Homeless Nation types, the Hedy Fried crosses burning in Prince George types. They have no interest in ending anything - they are in it for self preservation and their preservation depends on appearing to solve homelessness while in fact they rely on homelessness, addictions and drug use expanding.
Gregor Roberstunned's reaction to being elected says it all. He cares not for the homeless - he cares about appearing to solve the problem while funneling tax dollars to his supporters. He has made some people very happy and very rich. He has done zero for the cause of homelessness.
And it is all done with our tax dollars - what a gig.

Ian, visit this site http://vancouver.ca/fourpillars/

Note that it says City of Vancouver at the top of the page. Vancouver is a full partner in solving the issues of addiction and homelessness on our streets. Most often they do this by providing land from their property endowment, or waiving development levies. When it comes to building new housing, every shovel that has gone into the ground during the past 16 months has been as a result of previous governments, not Robertson's.

On the issue of the DTES, I cannot remember the last time – if ever – Gregor Robertson talked about the issue of drugs. My theory for this is simple. Talking about drug addiction would muddy the Mayor's squeaky clean image. Talking about homes is cherry pie, talking about sick, mentally ill and poisoned people is difficult.

Robertson just visited Ottawa where it was pretty clear he had no formal plan, nor any strategy to influence the Conservative government. However, he did make the rounds of the national press corps, levering Vancouver's fame from the Games for a little more attention to himself. But the hacks on the Hill will probably see that Gregor has no plan, too.

Robertson pinned his hopes on stimulus funding, suggesting that the Feds need to "loosen up the rules" to allow for housing development. This echoes Robertson's earlier public plea to get the Province to give Carbon Tax revenue for housing. It's naive politics at best. Flaherty said the door is now shut on stimulus dollars, and the Carbon Tax is revenue neutral.

The first day of summer will mark the halfway point for Robertson's term as mayor. He better pray that he has more than his garden at City Hall and a goofy marketing logo to show for when he begins campaigning for re-election in the fall. If this guy doesn't figure out ways to partner with senior levels of government or the private sector for real dollars, the voters will not be happy.

Great post. Addictions treatment is central to resolving the crisis of the DTES and this simply isn't adequately understood. Where is the serious but always controversial discussion on addictions taking place socially and politically? It's essentially gone, it's been replaced by the homelessness discussion.

Yes a stable environment, and housing, helps a person trying to get off drugs, but aggressive treatment is central and it's not progressing. Plus people should keep in mind that there are plenty of people rotting in government housing, killing themselves with drugs despite having a roof over their heads. Personally, I know I'd rather be clean and on the street than a heroin addict in a government paid for apartment, so lets not imagine housing everyone to be anything close to an endgame, if it were even possible. We have to be able to keep both issues in the spotlight at the same time, and use intelligent realistic solutions and proper funding toward both of these aspects of the DTES crisis simultaneously.

I saw this quote yesterday and post it here for the VISION party - from Malcolm Forbes --
"It's so much easier to suggest solutions when you don't know too much about the problem."

Thank you for recognizing that housing and addiction are linked and you can't really be effective tackling addiction in homeless populations.

And I agree that both are related pillars in the four pillars strategy.

But you haven't dealt with the point that obviously follows: it's the provincial government that's responsible for funding and providing addiction services, not the municipal. Yes the four pillars strategy is partnered but the provincial partner pays for addiction services.

And the next point is the killer: The BC Liberals after lying about the budget and blowing billions are cutting addiction services in the Lower Mainland. For example, through the Health Authority cut funding for the award winning West Coast Alternatives Society last fall amongst other cuts to addiction and mental health services.

The same is true for the Fraser Health Authority. And the current budget continues the pattern.

Blaming Robertson for something he can't change but your friends in the provincial government can is just wrong.

Like many people (I suspect) I came across CityCaucus through the "Free Olympic Events" guide,which was very good. It's sad to discover, after a week of reading, that it is simply a site used to be negative about Vision and the Mayor. It could (and should) be so much more than narrow political point scoring.

Sorry Mike or Kevin (not sure which of you posted this) but I for one want them to keep up the good work. The NPA is nowhere to be found with Anton at the helm, and the city needs to keep an eye on this government. Keep up the good work CityCaucus and don't let anonymous vision supporters discourage you.

Ian, nice straw man blaming the BC Libs for the addiction problem. Do you really think in the current economic circumstances and NDP govt would have provided any more budget for these services?

The fact is that money allocated towards health care has only ever gone upwards, regardless of which govt is in power. It's a bottomless pit.

Pretending that it's some evil political group screwing over the poor addicts is not going to help the situation. Pretending that the problem will go away if we just build enough social housing for everyone is not helpful either. We can't, and it won't go away even if we could.

Approaching the problem with a bit of realism is more useful for everyone.

AVS, I think if you dig back in the archives you'll find more of same, and a lot more. But even if it's the case that we're critical of Vancouver's current government, what's wrong with that? Where else do you find anyone out there doing any political analysis of Robertson's government? Trying to find any critical analysis of Vision Vancouver the mainstream media is like looking for a glass of water in the Sahara.

Bear in mind that we've not written a single political screed since the end of January, so we've had a little catching up to do this week. When there are interesting stories that we find outside Vancouver's borders, you'll get our take.

We're gearing up for more coverage of the Paralympics in the days ahead, plus a few more surprises.

Wow! These inciteful, creative videos put the mainstream media to shame.

The interview with Robertson is revealing indeed. It is clear on this issue he is as at sea as on virtually every other so far. Is he or is he not dealing with addiction & homelessness? How much has been spent this past year on these things, what are the breakdowns? Mayor Owen created the 4 pillars & safe site. The Libs have finally made a start with their [19] DES housing projects but, it's only a start & long, long. long overdue [Socred, Socred, NDP, NDP, NDP & previous Libs regimes did nothing for more than 25 years]. Now we need to see what inhouse care will go into these facilities as promised by Bill Bennet when he dumped Riverview onto the streets.

Vision needs to get clear that the City does not have the legal jurisdiction nor tax base to deal with these issues but, they do have a role to advocate, lobby, coordinate & facilitate. We have seen no indication they are doing so but, we have seen evidence they are mis-applying our tax dollars in this area &, by his own admission in the video, for little or no benefit. Scary stuff.

When vision was in opposition they used to slam the npa for their record on homelessness and drug addiction. Now that they're in power, they're trying to spin out that this is all the Province's problem, and the city has nothing to do with this. Why weren't they singing this tune before the last election?

Thank you for alerting us to this very important video/film. Regardless of your opinion on this subject, it was worth watching, if only to get a better grasp of the size of the problem.

Misha, Al and Corey thanks so very much for making this amazing film, it has opened my niave and sheltered eyes to the life of the DTES victims of addiction. I am in the process of righting a paper on the DTES on prostitution, drug use and homelessness and this has given me a sympathetic view on the real problem in our society. I also have a different and unsettling view of our Mayor. Misha I hope you stay drug free, you are an incredible guy and a brave man. I wish you three great success in your careers. I am going to make sure all my kids view this film that had me in tears and that takes a lot believe me as I'm a longtime nurse in the OR and I thought I say everything in life. Thanks again

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