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Mayor says VPD report on social spending isn’t useful, minister calls it ‘misleading’

Police-commissioned report says city’s ‘social safety net’ costs $5 billion a year
A homeless camp is pictured in Strathcona Park close to the downtown core of Vancouver, Tuesday, March 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

A report commissioned by the Vancouver Police Department that concludes $5 billion a year is being spent on the city’s “social safety net” is facing criticism from the mayor, who said it was not very useful, and the public safety minister, who called it “sensationalized and misleading.”

The $142,000 report by Alberta-based HelpSeeker Technologies says the spending includes $1 million a day in the Downtown Eastside.

It lands on the sum of $5 billion after including items like the Vancouver police and fire budgets, federal supports such as pensions for all residents of the city, and the budgets of some non-profits and charities that provide services to the entire province.

The report’s findings were announced at a VPD press conference on Wednesday, a day after it was leaked to the media.

Sim called a media availability to discuss the report and said the city would not be relying on its 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 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.

Police Chief Adam Palmer denied the report’s numbers are misleading or inflated and suggested spending is actually higher than $5 billion.

Palmer said police had not planned to release the report until they had done more consultation but were speaking publicly after it was leaked to the media.

He is calling for a centralized entity, led by a provincial minister or deputy minister, to oversee and co-ordinate services in the Downtown Eastside. He said there is a lack of co-ordination between services and a “piecemeal” approach that isn’t working.

“We want to work with all the different partner agencies but somebody, probably from government, probably at the provincial level, needs to be in charge of this place and say, ‘This is how we’re going to co-ordinate all these disparate silos, and provide the best outcomes for people on our streets and the best outcomes for community,’” Palmer said.

The report recommends caution about its data on specific neighbourhoods, including the Downtown Eastside, since programs located in one area could be helping people living elsewhere.

It says that without analyzing other Vancouver neighbourhoods, the amount being spent in the Downtown Eastside is “unknown.”

But Palmer said there’s an increasing body of evidence that suggests money isn’t being used in a way that best serves the people who need it the most.

“It is now bleaker than ever for a growing number of people in places like the Downtown Eastside, but it does impact other neighbourhoods in Vancouver as well,” he said.

Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry criticized the report’s methodology and said he worried it would be used to justify future cuts to services, calling it “stigmatizing” to the Downtown Eastside.

“I think it’s reckless and irresponsible to frame it that way, frankly, because we know that these are the kind of investments that are across the board — everything from early childhood education to seniors’ pensions to basic fire protection services,” he said in an interview.

“And what we also know is that it’s the upstream investments in those things like early childhood intervention in poverty reduction that actually, down the line, minimize the need for police interventions.”

Fry agreed there needed to be more co-operation to get better outcomes and value out of taxpayer money but said the VPD’s report is not the way to achieve it.

“This is, kind of, a unilateral, weaponized approach to having a conversation that I think sets it off on a bad foot and unfortunately erodes public trust in the police on this one. Certainly it’s eroded my trust in the police on this one,” he said.

— With files from Nono Shen in Vancouver

Ashley Joannou, The Canadian Press

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