More than 70 people filled Dodson House at the corner of East Hastings and Carrall for the founding of Downtown Eastside United on Saturday (April 5).
The new residency association was described by steering committee members as a direct response to gentrification and an ever-shrinking supply of affordable housing in the neighbourhood.
“We’re calling this Downtown Eastside United group together, in order, not to beg for anything, but to reinvigorate a fight,” said Ivan Drury, a long-time community activist. “It’s time to stand up.”
He called for a shift in how low-income people are interacting with the city on issues of development in the Downtown Eastside.
“We have to think about what it means to unite people in social housing with people in SROs with workers who are here on temporary migrant visas,” Drury said in one of several speeches that opened the meeting. “We need to think about how we can fight back in ways that isn’t just begging and asking to negotiate, but demanding what we need and taking what we need.”
The group’s steering committee is largely composed of former members of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC). In January, that group’s leadership split over disagreements about the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan (LAP), and the extent to which DNC members are cooperating with city hall.
The LAP was approved by Vancouver city council on March 15. Related bylaw amendments pertaining to social housing and zoning in the Oppenheimer District are scheduled to go before council on April 15.
A plan to guide development for the next 30 years, the LAP has received criticism from activists and housing advocates, who argue it does not go far enough to preserve the character of the Downtown Eastside as a home for low-income people.
In addition to Drury, former DNC members in attendance at the Downtown Eastside United meeting included Tami Starlight and Wendy Pederson. Other well-known faces from the neighbourhood included Jean Swanson, Sid Tan, Herb Varley, and Elwin Xie.
Starlight acknowledged conflicts within the community and emphasized a need to focus on the future.
“We don’t want to dwell on the past and on all the infighting and on the people who were willing to sell out and take crumbs and silence our community,” she said. “We really felt that we needed this meeting, especially we, the excluded five from the DNC. We’ve basically been high-jacked and excluded from a so-called democratic process….So we need to do something different.”
The meeting was convened to answer one question, Pederson explained in her opening remarks.
“What is the main issue that can unite the community?”, she asked. “How do we unite all of the people who are most-affected by poverty?”
Responses included affordable housing, “renovictions” and gentrification, and systemic racism against aboriginal people and low-income earners.
Speakers described an audit performed at the request of B.C. Housing and Vancouver Coastal Health as part of a coordinated attack on the low-income community in the Downtown Eastside. “I see our heart being ripped out from us,” one said.
Bud Osborn, a founding member of Insite, which is operated by the Portland Hotel Society, wasn’t in attendance but sent a note that was read out loud.
"This is going to be the last fight for the Downtown Eastside," that message read. "The developers are not stopping."
Downtown Eastside United is scheduled to hold its second monthly gathering at Dodson House on May 3. In the meantime, the steering committee will be holding weekly meetings at the Carnegie Centre on Thursday evenings.