It was with just a touch of discomfiture that the new head of the Portland Hotel Society shook hands with former PHS executive manager Mark Townsend this morning (May 30).
Ted Bruce had yet to officially be named as the leader of the Downtown Eastside nonprofit, whose revenue for 2013 exceeded $35.5 million. But the fact that he was having coffee with new PHS chief administrator Ken Bayne at East Van Roasters—a business operated by PHS—left little to guess work.
Townsend had heard rumours about who might be filling his shoes, but had officially been kept out of the loop. The news was confirmed a couple of hours later by PHS interim board chair Faye Wightman. Bruce, former executive director of population health at Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), has been named interim executive director of the Portland Hotel Society.
At the café at Carrall and East Hastings, dressed business-casual in jeans and a black turtleneck, Bruce introduced himself to Townsend somewhat awkwardly. Townsend—who was forced to resign in March following allegations of financial mismanagement—shook Bruce’s hand and offered to help with the transition. The two spoke for less than five minutes before returning to their respective meetings, sitting just a few tables apart.
“I’ve got some high hopes that it will all work out,” Townsend said of PHS, the organization he cofounded and helped run since 1993.
“I have a great deal of respect for Ted,” he continued. “I think the acid test will be, will we see him on the steps of the Victoria legislature with a bullhorn? I think then we’ll know he’s doing a good job.”
The challenge was in reference to PHS’s reputation as a nonprofit that regularly pushed the bar with alternative housing and health programs that almost routinely attracted controversy.
For example, since 2004, PHS has operated Insite, North America’s only sanctioned supervised injection facility. More recently, a program that sees severe alcoholics brew their own beer drew heckles from conservative commentators. And in 2013, PHS members attracted the ire of the provincial government when they protested funding cuts to a women’s program at the Rainier Hotel. (PHS is also a major housing provider for low-income individuals, operating SRO hotels with rooms numbering more than 1,100.)
The question of whether a PHS interim board stacked with ties to B.C. Housing and Vancouver Coastal Health will let those sorts of activities continue has been asked by just about every relevant party the Straight has spoken with on the topic.
In a telephone interview, Bruce tried to put those concerns to bed.
“My sense is, pushing the envelope requires a lot of partners,” he told the Straight. “Portland is often identified with that, but there have been key people from the health sector who have helped push things forward, there have been key people with [B.C.] Housing that have helped provide support for innovation, and there have been people in the research community and in the medical community. So it’s been partnerships that create the innovations that we’ve seen and the cutting-edge things that we’ve seen. And that’s what I would hope we can continue to do with Portland.”
Bruce however noted that his top priorities will be addressing concerns raised in the financial audit that brought down PHS’s old management team, and “re-establishing trust” with donors and the Downtown Eastside communities in which PHS operates.
“From the funders’ point of view, that requires ensuring that the organization has good financial management and stability,” he said. “And I think from the community’s point of view, that requires ensuring that we’re listening and engaging with the community around what we do.”
Bruce revealed that while he’s only had minimal dealings with PHS in the past, it was him who approached VCH about a possible role in the organization’s restructuring.
“I was worried that there would be a real negative view, generally, about what Portland does because of the audit,” Bruce explained. “I emailed somebody at Vancouver Coastal Health, saying that if there was anything I could do to help, I was available.” Discussions evolved from there, he said.
In addition to Bruce’s previous position with VCH, he is a co-chair of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, and adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health and Simon Fraser University's health sciences faculty.
According to a biography published by UBC, Bruce’s responsibilities at VCH included working to reduce health inequalities and developing innovative strategies to address the social determinants of health.
It’s stated there that Bruce is a former president of the Public Health Association of B.C., and an advisory board member of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute for Population and Public Health.
According to a PHS media release, Bruce is working on a one-year contract that begins immediately.