Image: flickr/mjmilloy

Mark Townsend and Liz Evans, founders of the Portland Hotel Society (PHS) have resigned following two audits from Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) and B.C. Housing that raise questions over the distribution and accounting of administrative fees for a twenty-year old organization that provides homes and harm reduction services to Vancouver’s most vulnerable population. The PHS is best known for operating InSite, North America’s first and only safe injection site — a clinic universally lauded by health care professionals and poverty activists worldwide.

The PHS has been fighting the right-wing B.C. Liberal government for years, advocating for funds for staff, repairs and even door locks. And, famously, InSite fought the Conservative government tooth and nail all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada for the right to stay open. The release of this audit and the actions taken by B.C. Housing look like nothing short of an outright attack on a longtime defender of residents of the Downtown Eastside.

The response to the audits, carried out by third party KPMG Forensic, has been explosive. Details like limo rides, trips to Disneyland and $700 baby showers have been gleefully repeated by mainstream media outlets. The hypocrisy! The chutzpah! Never mind that the audits make no accusations of wrongdoing and certainly do not recommend the firing of all executive managers and dismissal of the board of directors. The VCH audit simply recommends that VCH and the PHS jointly develop requirements for record keeping and service evaluation plans. Instead, one of the most powerful organizations fighting gentrification in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has been crippled.

There are two contexts that matter here. First, the PHS is in conflict with a provincial government who has allowed a housing and public health crisis to fester and a municipal government that eyes the prime real estate of the DTES for its developer funding partners. Meanwhile PHS has been a world leader in harm reduction strategies, pushing the envelope to protect those living with addiction against a federal government ideologically opposed to relaxing drug laws in any way. While three levels of government had the poor and marginalized of Vancouver in its crosshairs, PHS stood tall — against the very people who held their purse strings.

The second context is how the PHS implicated in the growing non-governmental organization (NGO) industry delivering social services to the residents of the DTES. This context is alarming for many reasons and deserves attention. In many ways this industry is a result of the first context: the gaps left by our governments’ refusal to identify and satisfy the needs of its citizens need to be filled, and the only avenue left to provide fundamental services is organizations that must straddle grassroots autonomy and professional legitimacy in the eyes of its government funders.

The PHS was able to maintain legitimacy by virtue of its immense size and its long record of success — which made it easier to take provocative stands on harm reduction (like the recently installed crack pipe vending machines) and to stand up the closing of the Ranier Hotel last year. But its size also meant the 9 per cent administrative costs began to get quite large — about $1.5 million per year.

It can’t be denied that as the organization has grown it has bureaucratized itself away to some extent from the people it is meant to serve and lost a measure of grassroots accountability. The PHS is implicated in the larger concern of a growing NGO-industrial complex that competes against fellow service providers for funds in ways often not beneficial to those who rely on their services. But that criticism should come from grassroots organizers and activists, not the B.C. Government. For its part, even the VCH audit admitted the PHS is “achieving service objectives in providing specialized services to a unique population.”

The recent audits ask questions about how that money has been spent and accounted for, but it makes no accusations of wrongdoing — certainly no claims of corruption, long-term financial insolvency of the PHS, or its ability to deliver public money to those who need it most. Social justice advocates should not be in the habit of defending executives who make just under $200,000 per year. But social justice advocates also know that context and history matter. If we are going to allow the mainstream media to whip us into an outraged frenzy over expense irregularities, we owe ourselves to apply the same standards to those behind these attacks — and to be aware when we are being manipulated by the mainstream media.

Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson is taking some lighthearted heat on Twitter for accepting $25,000 each from Condo King Bob Rennie and a hundred of his closest (condo developer) friends. Even the Vancouver Sun found it kind of amusing. No one, however, has resigned in embarrassment yet. When Bev Oda — one of Harper’s few women cabinet ministers and one of the only women of colour in caucus — was exposed for expensing a $16 orange juice, she was publicly shamed and forced to resign. Meanwhile, 800 missing and murdered Aboriginal woman are still waiting for a national inquiry and no one has resigned because of this national disgrace. And, of course, Rob Ford is still mayor of Canada’s largest city. The outrage industry that allows cults of personality to overshadow public policy and collectivity hurts people and should have no part in critical analysis.

The Portland Hotel Society is one of the strongest barriers to gentrification in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and it is now nearly toppled. We can agree with the mainstream media’s vilification of two individuals and fetishize their errors in judgement — as if the PHS were their pet project and not the collective work of 500 employees and 1000 residents. We can criticize them for their failure to adhere to corporate bookkeeping standards and, perhaps, for rewarding themselves too richly for the taste of those fighting for social justice; but above all we should realize that this province and this city have been engaged in a war on the poor for over a decade.

We should decry the cynical timing of the audits’ release — hot on the heels of the disgraceful DTES local area plan, which announces the imminent dispersal of hundreds of people who call the Downtown Eastside their home. We should reject the mainstream’s framing of this audit and note that it asks questions but says exactly nothing on corruption, longterm financial solvency of the PHS, or its ability to deliver public money to those who need it most.

Gentrification means, of course, the conversion of working-class or low-income neighbourhoods to middle-class homes. But at its root is the word gentry, which means “of noble birth.” In that sense, gentrification intends to return what ordinary people had come to think of as their own to its rightful owners: the rich and powerful. 

It also, fittingly, means “enchanted.” How else could you describe the kind of logic that displaces thousands of society’s most vulnerable for restaurants that boast $12 tacos? Only magical thinking can make a city giddy about exposed brick walls and antique neon signs — while they forget the flesh and bone of the people who used to live there. Only magical thinking can convince Vancouver’s left to turn over a twenty-year project that has saved countless lives that governments have ceased caring about to B.C. Liberal appointees.

Enough magical thinking. Support the Portland.

An earlier version of this article mistakenly described Bev Oda as Aboriginal. regrets the error.

Image: flickr/mjmilloy

Michael Stewart

Michael Stewart

Michael Stewart is the blogs coordinator at and a freelance writer. He is a bad editor, a PhD dropout and a union thug. He lives in Victoria, B.C. Follow him on Twitter @m_r_stewart