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.