Serving Greater Vancouver & the Fraser Valley

Downtown Eastside – snapshots of faith

click here FOR ALL LOWER MAINLAND ‘snapshots of faith’
By Peter Biggs
TABLE of CONTENTS (click to go to):


DTES demographics

DTES costs

DTES health issues

DTES housing facts


Union Gospel Mission

Harbour Light – Salvation Army

Community Houses & Prayer

Jacqueline Dewar


with Co-Director Jacqueline Dewar

of Jacob’s WELL



For thousands of years the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-waututh nations exercised traditional rights over the land on which Hastings is now situated. Today the area is actually home to the highest number of off-reserve Aboriginal residents west of the prairies.

The Downtown Eastside (DTES) was Vancouver’s city centre in the early 1900s, home to theatres, concert halls, and prestigious shops. It is in fact Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood. Nowadays streets show all the social needs common to inner cities. The DTES is perhaps the most visible example of rampant drug addiction, mental illness, and prostitution along crowded streets in Canada. Although often described as ‘Canada’s poorest postal-code’, there are actually a number of Indigenous communities that are poorer.

The DTES is quite small in area. It is made up of eight different areas (see map ‘visible needs’ below). It’s notoriety comes from the appalling and chronic social need mostly in the Oppenheimer area. The intersection of Hastings and Main Streets along with nearby blocks were described in the Vancouver Sun as “four blocks of hell.” (Steffenhagen, Janet, 8 December 2006) 

Official population figures for the greater DTES area indicated 18,477 people in 2011. Compared with Vancouver as a whole it has a higher proportion of males (60 vs 50 percent), more seniors (22 vs 13 percent), fewer children and youth (10 vs 18 per cent), slightly fewer immigrants, and more Aboriginals (10 vs 2 per cent). There is increasing visible and contrasting gentrification. Numbers in the areas of poverty are hard to measure but thought to be around 8-10,000.

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The Vancouver Sun (Lori Culbert and Peter McMartin) compiled, for the first time in recent history, a list of every agency that operates in the Downtown Eastside or provides a service there, and also tallied the organizations’ annual revenues.  In 2013, $360 million was spent by 260 agencies and housing sites to help roughly 6,500 people. Most are poor; many have addictions or mental health challenges.

Three-quarters of this money comes from taxpayers, as the agencies received funding from the provincial ($231 million), municipal ($15 million) and federal ($17 million) governments.

That approxomates to around $1 million a day spent providing social services and other supports to the vulnerable residents of the Downtown Eastside  (This figure is conservative and doesn’t take into account such things as policing, ambulance use and ER visits)

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The BC Coroners Service reported that 365 people died of an illicit drug overdose in Vancouver in 2017, that’s one death a day for the entire year, the majority connected to the deadly synthetic narcotic fentanyl, the vast majority in the DTES.

The area has the highest rate of HIV infection in the Western world, largely attributable to the sharing of infected needles by intravenous drug users.

A 2016 study of the 323 most chronic offenders in the DTES found that 99 percent had at least one mental disorder, and more than 80 percent also had substance abuse issues. Between 60 and 70 percent of mentally ill patients treated St. Paul’s (the hospital closest to the DTES) are estimated to have multiple addictions. Possible explanations for the high level of co-occurrence between addiction and mental illness in the DTES include the vulnerability of the mentally ill to drug dealers, and a recent rise in crystal methamphetamine use, which can cause permanent psychosis.

“When we deinstitutionalized, we promised [mentally ill] people

that we would put them into the community 

and give them the support they needed. 

But we lied… I think it’s one of the worst things we ever did.”

Senator Larry Campbell, former mayor of Vancouver

Nancy McConnell who worked in the Salvation Army’s Cordova detox for many years reflects, “I noticed in the early 90’s when crack came to the DTES. People’s behaviour was completely different – the obsession stronger. It gives a much shorter high and the cravings are far stronger leading to an immediate psychological addiction. It is this intensity that leads to so much prostitution and crime. Crack and Crystal Meth can be addictive after one use. We also noticed open self inflicted sores – these drugs cause users to scratch and pick obsessively.”  However new intitiatives of care in the DTES offer hope such as Vancouver Coastal Health’s Heatley Community Health Centre. Integrated Care Teams include family doctors, mental health & substance care, harm reduction, counselling, social work and nursing. They are equipped to be integrated units and serve as a kind of healthcare-one-stop-shop for everyday issues. This is also likely  to reduce hospitalizations.

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housing facts

Housing is an underlying social need in the DTES. There are hundeds of ‘emergency shelter beds’ but SRO (single room occupancy) hotels are disappearing. Just 10 out of 65 hotels still have rent under $400 per month.

A 2017 City of Vancouver report numbered 972 people as homeless in the DTES. This underlying social need in the DTES seems intractable with long promised ‘social housing’ never seeming to materialize in sufficient numbers. About half of Downtown Eastside residents who experience chronic homelessness and serious mental-health issues migrated to the neighbourhood from elsewhere, according to a 2016 study by Simon Fraser University, a rise from the past decade to 52 percent from 17 percent.

The 2017 Hotel Survey & Housing Report by the Carnegie Community Action Project found that while the welfare rate has gone up to $710 a month, the average rent of privately owned hotels in the DTES remains at $687. The report also finds that 500 tenants were evicted from homes in the DTES, while only 21 new units of housing at welfare rate were opened. 

One significant initiative is that the Province is investing $291 million to build over 2,000 modular supportive housing units across BC for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Some of these homes are already appearing in the DTES.

There is a creeping gentrification mostly eastward in the DTES that is having a depressing effect on those who live with poverty as they witnesss their community shrinking.

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Union Gospel Mission

Union Gospel Mission (UGM), like Harbour Light, offers an impressive range of services. We spoke to UGM spokesperson Jeremy Hunka. “In the last three years I have definitely seen an increase of homelessness in the DTES, along with the fentanyl crisis killing people. The other thing is gentrification, where the poor of the DTES are concentrated into a smaller and smaller area. Asked what affects him most about working in the DTES Hunka responds, “Well the visuals of people suffering is tough. Also I am struck by how easy it is to relate to people here.”

He spoke of the ‘huge sequence of events’ that can bring people to UGM. They’re often traumatized, and have had health or financial crises and failure. It’s not becuase they’re lazy.  UGM announced in January, (with funding from the BC Government) a $34.5 million project to expand their Women and Families Centre into a seven storey, 120 bed unit with 63 supportive housing units.

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The Salvation Army

Harbour Light is situated at 119 East Cordova Street. They offer an impressive range of services. Three year-round shelter facilities provide 136 emergency shelter beds nightly (with additional 120 seasonal beds for winter). They serve over 400 meals, ten times each week with the support of volunteers and donors from the community. The Drop-In Centre is open most days.

They view the meals and the drop in centre as a gateway to access other Harbour Light services.

“We offer 23 detox beds (licensed as a community care facility through Vancouver Coastal Health) for men and 6 beds for women. Clients are supported 24/7 by health care workers, with daily nursing services.”

The Harbour Light treatment program is a residential alcohol and drug rehabilitation program offering 50 treatment beds for adult men for up to a year. The James McCready Residence provides affordable apartments for low-income earners in a safe, secure, alcohol and drug-free environment. McCready offers 39 bachelor suites and five one-bedroom units. This year the Salvation Army sponsored 200 men to go to Camp Sunrise, according to Jim Coggles (pictured left) – Executive Director at Harbour Light around 50 of them from the DTES. “We really see ourselves as a recovery based ministry and have seen so many successes,” he says. Coggles has been in the DTES for the past 2 years. “I noticed the pressing needs. The rise in homelessness and the increase of seniors. Some nights our shelters have 50 percent of guests who are men, 55 and older.” 

Harbour Light is embarking on an adventurous plan to replace their four buildings with one large one. “It will enable improvements in a number of areas, such as expanding our treatment program by 30 percent,” Coggles says.

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community houses & prayer

May 25 was a farewell Sunday at 614 Vanouver for Aaron White, after 14 years as a Chaplain with The Salvation Army in the DTES. He lives wiith his family  in one of the 10 ‘community houses’ in the DTES. This three-story house (that he partially owns)  has 15 people living in it. “We share all common places but have our own bedrooms,” he says. “Our residents are ‘stabilised’.” They enjoy a daily meal together, weekly and monthly gatherings to review the goals of the community. White is very intentional about being a Christian presence in the neighbourhood. He is also a leader with 24/7 PRAYER, and attends monthly gatherings of Pastors. Every quarter they have a joint worship service.

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Feature Interview



Jacobs Well is a storefront ‘friendship centre’ at 543 Powell Street. They mobilize teams of volunteers. 

The Light interviewed Co-Director Jacqueline Dewar (pictured left) who has both worked and lived in the DTES for the past 3 years. She attends Grandview Calvary Baptist Church.

Q: Over these recent years in the community, what strikes you as the main changes?

JD: There is an increase in aggression on the street. One factor is gentrification. It has a number of consequences. It squeezes people into a smaller and smaller area and feels (to the poor) like their neighbourhood is being taken from them, with stores that do not cater to, or tolorate, the poor.

There is just so much grief around, with the high number of deaths [due to Fentanyl overdoses] people have lost lots of friends.

Then there is the closure of programs, I think of ‘The Drug Users Resource Centre’ that provided essential ‘life-skills’. It was closed and merged with another resource focused on mental heath issues – ‘The Living Room’. (It is now called ‘The Powell Street Getaway’). Both groups lost out.

Q: A Vancouver Sun study found that over $1 million is spent by over 200 social agences daily. Why don’t we see more change in the DTES?

JD: The neighbourhood operates in constant ‘crisis mode’ all the time. Plus Governments change, there needs to be a longer-term vision and plan in applying the Four Pillars strategy to address substance abuse (Prevention | Treatment | Enforcement | Harm Reduction). Tons of money has gone into harm reduction because of the crisis of deaths.

Q: What most needs to change?

JD: Detox availability. Many of our ‘friends’ at Jacobs Well come to the point in their lives of wanting to end their addiction(s). Oh there’s a number they can call about detox. But they find they have to wait 1 – 3 weeks. Many of these people don’t know what day of the week it is, yet alone be able to deal with an ‘appointment’. Also by that time the motivation has likely passed. But it would be expensive.

Q: Squalor… it annoys and baffles many of us as to why accomodations and presence on the street always seem to produce so much garbage, filth and squalor.

JD: The vast majority of people we see are living with the long term effects of significant trauma. PTSD, impacting an individual’s daily functioning. It comes down to a basic lack of ‘emotional wellbeing’. There is a phenomenal incidence of hording.

Q: How does one help people like this?

JD: The vast majority grew up in foster homes with no stability. Add to this being repeatedly abused, then they ‘medicate’ their pain… it all ‘re-wires’ the brain. We find a lot of people have ‘borderline personality disorders’. Almost all have no family support.

There are hopes! Cousellors employ ‘Dialectical Behavour Therapy’ a form that helps people develop skills to avoid dysfuctions when they occur.

Q: What attracts people to such a decrepid dysfunctional neighbourhood?

JD: Well there is a high concentration of services. Some SROs [Single Room Occupancies] have arrangements with the courts – so it is an easy transition. Also lots of people are simply ignorant that there are any other places. 

Sometimes they move but often return. I remember one man who lived in Stanley Park. He was the equivilant of a highly traumatized 5 year-old in a 45 year-old body. He felt his answer was to move to Victoria. He actually managed it. But returned after 3 weeks…He found the new place ‘too crowded’ (this is someone who can’t even use Emergency Shelters).

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