Study finds steep drug and mental health challenges for Downtown Eastside single-occupancy tenants

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      A new study presents a steep uphill battle for many of the most impoverished people living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

      A team of UBC and SFU researchers spent two years working with nearly 300 single-room-occupancy tenants. They found exceptionally high rates of drug use and serious mental-health issues.

      “Ninety-five per cent had substance dependence and almost two-thirds were involved in injection drug use,” states a UBC media release. “Nearly half of the participants suffered from psychosis, and nearly half had a neurological disorder.”

      On the phone from UBC, Dr. William Honer, director of the university’s Institute of Mental Health, told the Straight that the goal was to gather a more comprehensive impression of the challenges faced by a vulnerable and often-overlooked segment of society.

      He explained that there have been a number of studies that have looked at physical health—especially around HIV, AIDS, and other diseases transmitted via injection drug use—but mental health has not received the same level of attention. Honer also noted that Downtown Eastside health studies have focused on homeless people, while impoverished residents like those living in single-room occupancy hotels have received scant attention.

      “I think maybe we didn’t know before, really, the extent of serious mental illness in people living in this situation,” he said.

      Honer added that mortality rates were also higher than expected, five times above the national average. “We would have expected three deaths over two years, but with our sample, we had 15,” he said.

      Another noteworthy statistic presented in the study’s findings is the proportion of Downtown Eastside single-room occupancy tenants who were born in Vancouver: only 13 percent. Ninety-three percent of participants reported themselves as having been born in Canada.

      Honer said that a relationship of cause and effect that could help explain the study’s findings was something beyond its scope. But he added it’s his hope that the group’s work will provide context for planning and policy decisions that will serve to improve the situation.

      The UBC media release notes that a single-occupancy room is often substandard. However for many people, its affordability means it is the only alternative to homelessness.

      The study was published August 8 by the American Journal of Psychiatry. It was funded by B.C. Mental Health and Addiction Services and by the Canadian Institute of Health Research.

      It’s estimated that some 3,000 tenants live in single-occupancy rooms in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

      Despite conditions that are sometimes poor, in recent years there have been growing calls for the creation of more social housing options of that kind. Those protests have come as the gentrification of the area continues to result in higher rents in the city’s most impoverished neighbourhood.

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      Aug 10, 2013 at 11:14am

      Not exactly shocking facts. I would hope if anything, the study should highlight the need for a long term mental health residence (yes, like Riverview) in the region. A cheap apartment alone won't solve their problems. These people need help to ensure they have any kind of quality of life.

      Mike W

      Aug 10, 2013 at 12:20pm

      I wish we could just start with a few people and find a model that works in helping as many DTE residents as possible.

      It is terrible to let people live like this. Just by luck we are not living there.

      Remember it could be you if circumstances were different, rich or poor.


      Aug 10, 2013 at 2:19pm

      Fidel Vila-Rodriguez, M.D.; William J. Panenka, M.D.; Donna J. Lang, Ph.D.; Allen E. Thornton, Ph.D.; Talia Vertinsky, M.D.; Hubert Wong, Ph.D.; Alasdair M. Barr, Ph.D.; Ric M. Procyshyn, Ph.D.; J.J. Sidhu, M.D.; Geoffrey N. Smith, Ph.D.; T. Buchanan, B.A.; Mel Krajden, M.D.; Michael Krausz, M.D., Ph.D.; Julio S. Montaner, M.D.; G. William MacEwan, M.D.; William G. Honer, M.D.

      A lot of warm bodies collaborating on this 'No Shit, Sherlock' study.

      Poverty studies in Canada, like unconscionable police screw ups that lead to Inquiries, are usually not a starting point to solve the problems or in this case, "guide the development of effective health care delivery in the setting of marginal housing", but a endless series of dinner bells calling the elites to the trough.

      A couple more papers and they have the makings of a pretty good agenda for the morning and afternoon sessions at a swanky conference to focus synergies and whatnot.


      Aug 10, 2013 at 6:15pm

      This article suggests if not downright demands that there be greater medical/psychological support for the DTES population that needs it.

      But would they take it?

      "The emphasis on more supportive housing, instead of plain social housing without institutional supports, is part of a pro-institutionalization trend worrying many residents." - current issue of Carnegie newsletter

      I suspect that many people that could probably benefit from treatment have already had just about as much official government benevolence that they can stand. They choose to self medicate.

      They would also like to choose to remain in the DTES to do it, but I don't know that that is feasible, let alone moral.

      Tough sitch.


      Aug 10, 2013 at 11:35pm

      We need more community centers where people can get together and do things. For many people the bars are the only place for hanging out. More structured activities like bus trips to places outside the DTES or community dinners, picnics, etc.

      Alan Layton

      Aug 11, 2013 at 12:13am

      This just shows that the DTES experiment has failed. So much money is being spent on expensive accommodations when treatment is what is really needed. Make no mistake, a huge amount of money is being thrown at the DTES and it's just not working. I think that some of the programs are on the right track but maintaining the community in it's present location is futile. The world isn't going to change for a few thousand people - especially compared to the hundreds of millions of people in far worse conditions. It's clear that we need some reality injected in to the present mind set and some form of institutionalization is needed for people with such severe medical problems.


      Aug 11, 2013 at 5:43pm

      We needed a study which cost our own tax dollars, to find that downtown east van has mental health and drug issues??? Very sad, what is the world coming to?

      We live in interesting times

      Aug 12, 2013 at 1:11pm

      The DTES presents a lot of complicated issues that need to be looked into and discussed, in order to help us consider what can and what should be done.

      To start, when does somebody cross the line from recreational user to substance abuser needing (or deserving) help? I would think, perhaps naively, that most would have progressed through a spectrum of drug/acohol use prior to their situation becomming the destructive reality of homeless and addicted on the DTES. Would early support to deal with other causitive factors then be the ounce of prevention? What's the public appetite to deal with potentially emergent and less in-your-face problems? Where does personal responsibility come into the discussion and what does it imply with respect to remedy?

      Complicating this is the free will we all exert over our lives. When does society have the right to determine behaviour is problematic and must be fixed? Is a young, partying, experimeting, possibly self medicating person to be told their behaviour will lead them to such a fate in some unknown amount of time so they should change? Does an addict receiving help or housing get to continue to engage in the behaviour that exacerbates their problems? Does it even matter when you cannot control people's free will and they cannot necessarily control it themselves? Or, if it is even a possible reality, does a hard core addict have the right to continue as they so choose?

      One of the most interesting aspects of living in Vancouver is the impact of addiction on all our lives. I hope we can continue to find the compassion to help those that need help. I understand people get tired of this seemingly endless situation, have problems of their own and bills to pay, and are tired of another hand looking to slide into their pocket. I would hate to see us lose the morality that makes this a great city... even though this situation tests us so heavily.