Demonizing DTES restaurants the wrong place for activists to focus their energy

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For those low-income residents who have come to see Pigeon Park as an important cultural space, I empathize with their concerns of displacement and spoke at length about it recently on the Bill Good show. My hope moving forward is that we exact some measure of control over our built environment and local economy so as to ensure that there are homes, businesses and public spaces for all income levels as well as opportunities for economic empowerment. We also need to ensure opportunities for people to simply be who they are. Not everyone can work, but hopefully employment training and support, the fostering of micro-enterprises, creation of culturally appropriate job space, the growth of social-enterprise, independent small businesses, co-ops and local entrepreneurs will continue to help re-form the DTES economy into one that can be truly inclusive for those who do want to. 

The most recent census data shows that 18,000 people currently live in the DTES and more than 20,000 people work in the area. Of the 20,000 working in the area though only 2,600 live here, the other 18,000 take their earnings with them to Kitsilano, Burnaby or elsewhere and spend their money there. We need to keep money circulating here in the community, that means more locally owned businesses and more local jobs.  With the LAP process we have an opportunity to set a new course, by rethinking the dominant economic framework here and asserting a certain level of control over our local economy. It’s already happening in Vancouver through things like social entrepreneurship, the sharing economy, community currencies, crowdfunding and crowdsourcing. Economics is not just capitalism.

Economics is not just the neoliberal globalized economy we are told that we live in. We have some space to be creative. In fact I’d wager that it’s our only option moving forward. But we also need to be realistic.

The protests at Pidgin, understandably, are in response to low-income residents having little to no control over the local economy, an area where activists could have been focusing energy years ago in my opinion in order to bridge the issues of housing, poverty and community economic development. Instead, they have taken to attacking small business owners as if they are the root cause of the housing problem. Before Pidgin it was Cartems, before Cartems it was Mark Brand, before Mark Brand it was Sean Heather.

With the lowest income levels and highest unemployment rate in the city, the DTES needs economic empowerment and economic opportunity. Locally owned independent businesses are a natural partner, but instead have been the recipients of this vitriolic disrespect at the hands of CCAP and related activist organizations. Meanwhile, the many other community organizations that do work closely with these many small businesses are a story that receives far less attention.

How to alleviate poverty in the DTES?

To be sure, CCAP and other activist organizations in the DTES do raise many valuable points. They sound the alarm bells on unacceptable levels of poverty and hardship and on deplorable living conditions. They remind us to be concerned about the impacts of land speculation. Some of the leaders in these organizations have done an incredible job of humanizing the toll that homelessness, poverty and mental health takes on our most vulnerable friends and neighbours.

They drive home the fact that these are living, loving, hurting and growing people who we cannot turn our backs on or cast aside. People who are here, and have every right to be. It’s their community, their city too. But they have also dehumanized others in doing so, reducing restaurant owners, local developers and even students to abstractions,cogs in a critique of gentrification. Describing them as processes more than people, as gentrification paratroopers, as foot soldiers who secure positions to make the area safe for developers and so on. These too are human beings with the capacity for empathy, compassion and change. Many of them passing through their own periods of hardship and even poverty in some cases. 

Alleviating poverty won't just come from more social housing and raising welfare rates, though I support both, and I won't purport to have a silver bullet solution myself. What I will put forward for consideration though is that a community divided will always have a more difficult time meeting its challenges than one that is unified.

Communities that have healthy levels of social capital, meaning trust, reciprocity, capacity for collaboration, familiarity with ones neighbours, are uniformly more successful in their ability to meet and overcome challenges than ones with factions and conflict.

It’s time for the wedge that has been driven between the most vulnerable low-income residents and the working poor, the middle-class and small business owners be removed.

We cannot wait for government to provide thousands of more units of social housing before we start to take seriously the need for community involvement in shaping our local economy. The Local Area Planning Process will not be a panacea for this part of our city, but it provides us a great opportunity to change course in the DTES and should be where all of us focus our energy right now, not on vilifying and demonizing one another. 

Wes Regan is a community economic development consultant who has lived and worked in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for over ten years. He is currently the Executive Director for both the Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association and Fast Track to Employment. He is an alumnus of SFU (BA, Urban Geography) and of Langara College (Associates of Arts, Geography).

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