The Downtown Eastside (DTES) was Vancouver’s first settlement and comprises the neighbourhoods of Strathcona, Chinatown, Gastown, Victory Square and Oppenheimer/Japantown.
The area was once a vibrant section of the city with head offices, banks, theatres, hotels, department stores, a library and housing for people of low and moderate incomes. The gradual loss of low-income housing in other parts of the city and the de-institutionalization of thousands of psychiatric patients drove more people to the DTES for affordable housing.
In the early 1990’s, as the drug situation throughout society worsened, more people with addictions came into the community, making it a centre for drug dealing and related crimes. This affected the entire community with a significant impact on local businesses. At the same time, large retailers and major public buildings were moving towards Granville Street, the new downtown centre. Despite these changes, established residents maintained vibrant core neighbourhoods.
In 1998, the City of Vancouver approved A Program of Strategic Actions for the Downtown Eastside to address the issues of crime, safety, poverty, substance abuse, homelessness, health and economic revitalization. A five-year comprehensive DTES Revitalization Program was launched, with the goal to “create a safe and healthy community.“
The catalyst for the Vancouver Agreement (VA) was an acute health crisis in the DTES – a high incidence of mental illness, drug addiction and HIV/AIDS within the local population. Health authorities pinpointed the DTES as the centre of an HIV epidemic in the region.
The City of Vancouver did not have the jurisdiction or funding to fully address these complex systemic, social and economic problems. Participation from other levels of government was required. The VA, signed in 2000, was one of the mechanisms to implement the City’s Program of Strategic Actions for the Downtown Eastside and address the health crisis. It helped to focus the interests of all levels of government on the issues and develop coordinated approaches.
A VA planning process created the following vision for inner-city communities that would drive the work of the VA to 2010:
“The community continues to include and support lower-income individuals and families, and people who require specialized services for mental illness and addiction. It should also be open to new people, lifestyles and businesses.”
The strategic initiatives for actions to achieve this vision are:
- Economic Revitalization
- Safety & Security
- Health & Quality of Life
During the VA’s first few years, activities were intensely focused on bringing together all relevant parties to address particular issues. Task teams composed of government agencies worked together to identify and implement community-based actions such as the Four Pillars Drug Strategy, Enhanced Enforcement and the Homelessness Action Plan. Although these efforts were coordinated by the VA, they remained the responsibility of the respective government agency.
With an infusion of federal and provincial funding in 2003, the VA assumed the additional role of providing grants to community agencies to support action on the four strategic initiatives. Most of these grants complemented funding provided by governments, foundations and non-profit organizations. During the VA’s lifespan, more than 70 projects were funded through almost 50 different organizations.
In 2009/10, the final year of the VA, many of the activities are being integrated into other government programs. For example, the province is working closely with the City of Vancouver to increase the affordable housing stock in the inner city. The City, in cooperation with other governments, has embarked on several strategies for revitalization in the Downtown Eastside, and the federal government continues to emphasize economic revitalization.