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Rob Shaw: Leaked VPD report an inflated work of fiction

The VPD summary concludes that $1.1 million is being spent a day on “charitable investments into non-profit organizations based in the Downtown Eastside” while poverty and crime get worse.
Financial assistance for seniors, and pension plans for everyone? Hardly largesse on the Downtown Eastside.

If you’re looking to pick up a good work of fiction for your reading list these days, you might consider venturing into the world of fantasy as penned by the Vancouver Police Department.

Its report, titled Vancouver’s Social Safety Net: Rebuilding the Broken, takes the reader through a make-believe world, in which an anonymous author and an overzealous graphic artist weave together a tale of greed, incompetence and bureaucratic bungling in Vancouver and on the city’s Downtown Eastside.

Too bad most of it is misleading nonsense.

The headline figure, as leaked to Global BC this week, was that the public is spending $5 billion a year on the city’s social safety net, despite hundreds of people dying of overdoses, horrendous conditions in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, tent cities, worsening poverty and rising crime.

Many of those trends are indeed accurate, especially around the worsening overdose crisis.

But if you drill into that “social safety net” figure, you quickly discover that $2 billion of the $5 billion cited is direct federal transfers that go to all residents of Vancouver in the form of things like the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, Employment Insurance and child tax benefits.

Financial assistance for seniors, and pension plans for everyone? Hardly largesse on the Downtown Eastside.

The VPD skips over that kind of accuracy though. By doing so, it allows itself to pen some outright ludicrous statements in the “Did You Know?” section of its summary, which reads: “UBC and SFU have a total combined budget of less than $3.8 billion. This means $5 billion would be more than enough to make post-secondary education tuition-free in Vancouver.”

Or: “As another comparison, C$5 billion roughly equivalent to US$4 billion – more than NASA’s annual budget for the International Space Station (ISS).”

Or: “It is also comparable to the annual operating budget of the entire National Hockey League (NHL).”

None of those comparisons make any sense whatsoever.

But if we’re going to play the game of actively making the reader dumber by contrasting apples to oranges, here’s a couple for you: Did you know that the entire annual budget of the VPD is roughly equivalent to 100 bottles of the world’s most expensive tequila, called Diamond Sterling Tequila by Ley925?

Or, did you know that it is also comparable to 300 gold-plated toilets of the type that Kanye West and Kim Kardashian once installed into their Bel Air mansion?

Think about that for a minute, why don’t you.

Now, back to reality, such as it is.

The VPD summary concludes that $1.1 million is being spent a day on “charitable investments into non-profit organizations based in the Downtown Eastside” while poverty and crime get worse.

Yet, to peel back that unreliable number, you have to open the actual 81-page report the VPD based its summary upon, written by “social technology” company Helpseeker Technologies. And once you do that, you’ll start to see there are major problems there too.

It looks like Alberta-based Helpseeker relied on the address of organizations in the Canada Revenue Agency charities database to reach its outrageous total of Vancouver and Downtown Eastside largesse. In the process, it has captured non-profits and charities that provide services to the entire province, and should never have been counted as Vancouver-specific.

Take, for example, the Legal Services Society, which is the non-profit provider of legal aid for all of B.C. Helpseeker throws the society’s entire $105 million provincewide revenue into its report, as if all of it is a social service for Vancouver.

There’s also the $78 million in revenue from the Forensic Psychiatric Services Commission, which Helpseeker includes as a Vancouver social safety net expense, when in actuality it runs regional clinics in Kamloops, Prince George, Surrey, Victoria, Nanaimo and Vancouver.

Then there’s the Burnaby Search and Rescue Association, which inexplicably gets listed even though it also runs humanitarian relief missions overseas.

Helpseeker makes a small admission that it’s got some of the agencies wrong, but it’s buried so far down in its report that the public will likely never see it.

“The data available does not allow us to determine to what extent a service is being delivered well, in what catchment area it serves,” it writes. Too bad nobody leaked that publicly. The disclaimer certainly wasn’t in the VPD’s splashy graphics-heavy report.

Then there’s the report’s definition of charity. It’s written in a way that leaves the impression of greedy downtown Vancouver groups, raking in cash while the social problems get worse on the street.

Except, if you look at the actual list of charities (located on one of the appendices in the report) you find groups like the Aquafit For All Association and the Urban Horse Project Society. Even the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation and the UBC Hospital Foundation are thrown into the mix.

The definition of charity appears so vague that numerous groups are included that are hardly Downtown Eastside social safety net providers.

You could carry on and nitpick all this report to death, but there’s no point.

It seems clear what’s going on with this leak.

The timing comes as premier-designate David Eby gets ready to be sworn into office, and provides a clear shot for the Opposition BC Liberals.

“David Eby has spent over a quarter of a billion dollars buying hotels and motels, overpaying for them, and then warehousing people with severe mental health and addictions issues into these hotels, creating chaos in the streets and neighbourhoods surrounding these areas,” Liberal leader Kevin Falcon said on Global, to coincide with the release of the leaked report.

The leak was also convenient timing for Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim, who has promised to bolster VPD’s resources with 100 new officers and whose tough-on-crime message helped sweep his party onto city council.

But even Sim had trouble with the VPD summary, noting, for example, that the figures cited for the city’s fire and rescue budget don’t add up or make sense.

He told Global, “these are questions that we really need to ask because before we can make any definitive comments as to the effectiveness of what’s going on at the City of Vancouver, we really need to understand where they’re getting their numbers from.”

By all means, the new mayor should ask the questions.

But he might not like the answers. Because the VPD’s summary, and much of the report the department commissioned, are misleading works of fiction.

The entire affair, including the leak, was clearly an attempt to embarrass Downtown Eastside agencies and various governments. But in the process, the VPD has only embarrassed itself.


Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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