Downtown Eastside organizations fear a return to ‘normal’ | CBC News

Organizations on the Downtown Eastside say they’re concerned about the outcome for Vancouver’s most vulnerable people as COVID-19 restrictions ease and the pandemic continues at a dull roar. 

Mebrat Beyene, executive director at the sex worker support organization WISH Drop-In Centre, says it was heartening to see how quickly funders and governments came together to offer assistance and money as the pandemic took hold. Beyene worries that support will disappear now that COVID-19 is somewhat under control. 

“It is worrisome to hear about ‘returning to normal,’ ” Beyene said. “The status quo before was very broken.” 

At WISH, extra funds went toward staffing a day shift for the organization’s support van, installing a washroom trailer in the organization’s back lot, and implementing other services that Beyene says have been needed for a long time. But without a renewed injection of financial support, those services are at risk.

“Those of us in the community are working really hard together to continue to raise the alarm and to see … those achievements now don’t get scaled back,” she said.

‘Extra’ services needed all the time

Those concerns are echoed at organizations throughout the Downtown Eastside, where leaders wonder how they will maintain the additional services made possible by one-time emergency pandemic funds.

Janice Abbott, CEO of the Atira Women’s Resource Society, says it’s hard to start offering new services and then take them away.

“It’s extra, but it’s stuff [residents] need all the time,” Abbott said. 

Service providers on the Downtown Eastside say they have been glad to see that COVID-19 hasn’t spread widely in the community. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Like others, Abbott says the pandemic has exacerbated the province’s ongoing housing and opioid crises. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more people have died from the poisoned drug supply than they have of COVID-19. 

Abbott hopes the pandemic has shone a light on those issues and how much of a difference people and governments can make when they come together to help those in need. 

“I hope that they will look at this and that there will be some changes made to the social safety net,” she said. 

‘The longer term is really concerning’

Over at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, acting executive director Kate Gibson says she wonders how the pandemic will impact the hundreds of thousands of dollars that her organization’s fundraises each year.

Events like the Scotiabank Charity Challenge have been cancelled, as have other fundraisers that would normally take place. Gibson also worries about the financial impact of the pandemic on individual donors, who may need to curtail their support. 

“That’s where I think we’re really going to feel it,” Gibson said. “The longer term is really concerning.”

Advocates on the Downtown Eastside say they wish the same efforts could be applied to the ongoing housing and opioid crises as have been directed toward fighting the spread of COVID-19. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

But Gibson isn’t all doom and gloom. Like others on the Downtown Eastside, she says she has been encouraged by how effective efforts have been to impede the spread of COVID-19 despite fears that it would rip through the community. 

She thinks those same efforts can be maintained to keep both the virus and social inequities in check. 

“The pandemic has brought this community together in a way that’s different from before. And I think that all of those things have strengthened everybody.”

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