Statement on the Portland Hotel Society

East Van Roasters social enterpriseAll eyes, it seems, are on the Downtown Eastside these days. In the immediate wake of the controversial approval of the DTES Local Area Plan by City Council a couple of weeks ago (most parts of which were opposed solely by Councilor Carr for failing to recognise the housing needs of current Downtown Eastside residents), the troubles of the Portland Hotel Society have burst into the news and added significantly to the already precarious situation faced by Downtown Eastside residents, non-profit organisations and social enterprises every day.

The Green Party of Vancouver fully supports the provision of jobs, critical services such as Insite, and affordable and supportive housing for vulnerable residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as developed by the Portland Hotel Society (PHS). The current uncertainty regarding the future of PHS puts at risk essential services for Vancouver’s most vulnerable citizens. We feel it is important for all levels of government and parties across the political spectrum to commit to maintaining these services and reassuring residents of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) through the current transition in PHS governance.

The administrative scandal presently plaguing PHS is not simply a failure of senior management judgment in authorizing inappropriate expenditures, but more importantly a failure in governmental oversight. The B.C. Government, which provided almost two-thirds of the PHS’s $35.5 million budget, is tasked with due diligence in safeguarding public investments through effective auditing systems. Audits should prescribe corrective measures such as how to improve financial record-keeping and decision-making. No aspect of PHS operations should be dismantled without a full cost-benefit review and without first implementing better checks and balances on financial decisions.

In a March 25 Globe and Mail article "Business, real-estate ventures – not fraud – caused deficit at PHS", BC Housing Minister Rich Coleman suggested that the government is not prepared to continue supporting social enterprises operated by the PHS in the DTES : “We’re not going to subsidize all this stuff, (t)he deficit was caused by these social enterprises.

The Green Party of Vancouver is concerned about eliminating social enterprises, as they are part of an integrated and holistic approach to the Downtown Eastside.

Social Enterprises are commercial strategies that prioritize improvements in human and environmental well-being over profits. In the case of the PHS, these not-for-profit businesses included a cafe, laundry-cleaning services, coffee and chocolate roasting, beekeeping, a thrift store and more.

These social enterprises provide employment and pre-employment opportunities for people with barriers that make it difficult for them to find work in the traditional job market. As local-serving businesses, they reflect the fundamental principle of "Revitalization without displacement" of the Vancouver Agreement – an accord signed in 2000 between the City of Vancouver, federal and provincial government agencies, community organizations and the private sector. “Revitalization without displacement” is part of a strategy to support local community solutions to economic, social, health and safety issues in the DTES.

As part of the Four Pillars Strategy, social enterprise also play a vital role. For example: cleaning and laundry services that provide supportive low-barrier training for people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction in turn provide peer-based cleaning, de-hoarding and pest management services for marginalized, elderly and ill residents of the DTES.

Pete Fry, a long-time Downtown Eastside resident (and recently announced Green Party of Vancouver Council nominee), sums it up:

”No-one should condone inappropriate expenditures. But, if the Minister believes that the PHS's main financial issue has been subsidizing social enterprise, we should be considering how we apply a full cost-benefit analysis to these kinds of enterprises. Like any small business, local economic development projects provide a number of tangible community benefits. What makes these PHS social enterprises so remarkable is that they also provide a lot of opportunities for people to re-enter the workforce and stabilize their lives. Perhaps we should be looking to quantify this qualitative value and put a dollar amount on the value of the social good that these enterprises generate.”

Typically, bureaucrats and auditors focus on the monetary values of programs designed to address social issues. The Green Party of Vancouver maintains that the measures of success for these social enterprises are long term and do not fit neatly into a yearly report of measurable outcomes.

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