With the dust beginning to settle on the bombshell financial audit of the Portland Hotel Society, community leaders are beginning to speculate on the nonprofit’s future.
PHS’s outgoing team of executive managers, headed by Mark Townsend and Liz Evans, had a reputation for pushing up against the government’s comfort zone on harm reduction and affordable housing programs.
Wendy Pedersen, a Downtown Eastside community organizer, told the Straight that the newly appointed interim board’s “developer-friendly” character means PHS’s days of progressive public-health initiatives are likely a thing of the past.
“The foxes are now in charge of the henhouse,” Pedersen said. “So I do not believe that they’ll be doing anything innovative or protecting of Downtown Eastside residents’ rights on housing or health in this community.”
On March 19, PHS’s executive management team and board of directors resigned amid accusations of financial mismanagement. An interim board was appointed, which has strong ties to B.C. Housing and Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), as well as the Vancity credit union. In the near future, that eight-member team will appoint a permanent board, which will then select a new management team to oversee day-to-day operations.
In the meantime, a pair of bureaucrats selected from PHS’s two largest government donors have assumed managerial responsibilities. Those individuals are Anne McNabb, director of mental health and addiction services at VCH, and Dominic Flanagan, executive director of supportive housing and programs at B.C. Housing.
Andrew Ledger, PHS steward for CUPE 1004, which represents approximately 300 PHS workers, told the Straight that he didn’t want to speculate on how a new team might proceed, but he noted that a more conservative approach is a possibility.
“They [outgoing managers] were always at the vanguard as global leaders on harm reduction,” Ledger said. “And part of doing that is being aware of what people are doing on the streets and the needs of the community, and addressing them in creative ways. Whether or not they [incoming managers] are invested in being global leaders in harm reduction, only time will tell.”
On March 25, B.C. housing minister Rich Coleman told the Globe and Mail that the province would no longer fund PHS social enterprises, such as a laundry service and a café. “We’re not going to subsidize all this stuff,” he said.
Faye Wightman, chair of the interim board, B.C. Housing board member, and former head of the Vancouver Foundation, told the Straight that the process of selecting new executive managers will focus on candidates with experience in a nonprofit environment, fiscal accountability, and a background of working with the homeless.
Asked whether there would be an emphasis on ties to the Downtown Eastside, Wightman said it was too soon to say.
Irwin Oostindie, a community organizer who’s worked in mental-health services, described the interim board as a missed opportunity to restore grassroots participation and accountability to PHS. “There have to be board members from the community and from the client base, and there isn’t right now,” he said.
Outgoing PHS executive director Mark Townsend cautioned against operating with insufficient flexibility in a neighbourhood
like the Downtown Eastside.
“Everybody’s going to want for it to be run more like a bureaucracy,” he said. “But for it to do the job it needs to do, you need someone that’s going to be able to understand that it has to look a little bit different.”