After 20 years operating in the Downtown Eastside, an advocacy group for people with mental-health challenges will close its doors at the end of this month.
ARA Mental Health is one of three long-time programs that found themselves on the chopping block following a funding shuffle initiated by Vancouver Coastal Heath (VCH). Two others, Gallery Gachet and the Drug User Resource Centre (DURC), don't yet have firm dates to close but remain without new sources of funding they require to remain open beyond the end of this year.
In a telephone interview, Stephen Finlay, executive director of ARA Mental Health, said VCH extended support for an extra five months beyond its originally cutoff date but that he was unable to secure a new revenue source during that time.
“We worked very hard at it and applied to well over a hundred possible funders but did not get enough to keep going,” Finlay told the Straight.
ARA Mental Health helped people with a disability navigate government bureaucracies, ensured they received welfare payments, and assisted with housing applications, among other tasks.
Finlay told the Straight that this sort of assistance can be difficult to quantify, which didn’t make it easy for ARA Mental Health to find a private backer.
“In mental-health care, you don’t get the job done in six months, 12 months, or 18 moths,” Finlay explained. “It is years and years of ongoing struggle to provide a decent mental-health service. And so you don’t get results that you can throw on a corporate webpage. Sometimes, the result is, ‘He is still alive’. And we in the business, we know that is a huge success. But it’s not the kind of thing that gives you PR benefits."
ARA Mental Health previously received approximately $230,000 a year from VCH. Gallery Gachet, an artists’ collective for people with a mental-health challenge, received $130,000 in annual funding. VCH provided DURC, a drop-in facility for people with addiction issues, with $634,000 a year.
The cuts are all part of a major overall of services in the Downtown Eastside that VCH calls Second Generation.
Already five years in the making, the plan has an official launch scheduled for this November. While total funding for health care in the Downtown Eastside is increasing, to approximately $59 million a year, up from $55 million, community leaders have expressed extreme anxiety for the changes that are coming.
(Read the Straight’s in-depth report: Second Generation health care puts a squeeze on space in the Downtown Eastside.)
That’s despite a September 2015 VCH media release that lists a host of new mental-health and addictions services planned as part of Second Generation. That document and related materials describe a renewed emphasis on clinical services and integrated care delivered with a low-barriers approach that is heavy on peer involvement. The release warns that programs not falling within this focus on clinical applications may be discontinued.
“VCH contracts without a clear health mandate or those offering stand-alone services without formal connections to health care services may not be renewed,” it reads.
That’s where ARA Mental Health, Gallery Gachet, and DURC appear to have lost out.
Susan Alexman is director of programs for the Portland Hotel Society, the nonprofit that opened DURC in 2003. She told the Straight that the community centre across the street from Oppenheimer Park is still receiving VCH funding but that they’ve been told they will receive 90-days’ notice to close in the very near future.
“I expect that we will probably remain open at least through to November,” Alexman said.
When DURC lost $634,000 in annual funding from VCH, another nonprofit called Lookout Emergency Aid Society gained about $200,000 to allow it to extend hours and expand services at a drop-in centre called LivingRoom, located on Powell Street just east of Oppenheimer Park.
Alexman said the Portland Hotel Society is now coordinating with VCH and Lookout to see many of DURC’s programs relocated to LivingRoom.
“We’re working to help the community make that transition,” she said.
VCH’s mental-health and addictions programs in the Downtown Eastside are overseen by Andrew MacFarlane, operations director of community health services (inner city–east). He was unavailable for an interview, but when the Straight spoke with him last May, MacFarlane presented a list of service improvements coming with the rollout of VCH’s Second Generation strategy.
VCH is extending service hours and expanding programs at three existing clinics: at 59 West Pender Street, 569 Powell Street, and 330 Heatley Street. At those locations, he said, doors will soon be open 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
That was originally scheduled to happen before the end of 2016 but has since been delayed to be phased in starting at the end this year.
Another major addition that Second Generation is bringing to the Downtown Eastside is an entirely new, low-barriers point of access for people with addiction issues. Designed with the working title Railtown Centre for Addiction, it’s now called Connections. According to VCH spokesperson Gavin Wilson, Connections remains on schedule to open on Powell Street east of Oppenheimer Park this November.
Speaking last May, MacFarlane emphasized that Second Generation is the result of extensive community consultation and designed to address the most common complaints that VCH received through that process.
“We had programs that were really siloed,” he explained. “If you saw a mental-health clinician somewhere, then you had to walk somewhere else to a primary-care doctor, who may or may not be in the loop on what is happening with your mental-health treatment.”
While ARA Mental Health and DURC confirmed their closures are imminent, staff with Gallery Gachet continue to scramble for new funding.
Anthony Meza-Wilson, a volunteer and facility manager for the gallery, told the Straight they’ve secured enough money to keep the space open until November. But he stressed that the group is now essentially operating on a month-to-month basis, holding special events to bring in just enough money to keep their doors open. Meza-Wilson was however quick to add the group remains optimistic they will soon find new sources of funding, noting talks are underway.
He warned of what the community stands to lose if the gallery does have to close down.
“There is no other program like Gallery Gachet in Vancouver…that is primarily an exhibition space for artists who are marginalized around mental-health experiences, poverty, and other kinds of exclusions,” he said. “To let people show their work and to be able to have that sense of putting their work out there, it makes it a vital community hub in the Downtown Eastside.”
(Read the Straight’s in-depth report: Second Generation health care puts a squeeze on space in the Downtown Eastside.) More