After eight months without a captain at the helm, the Portland Hotel Society (PHS) finally has a new executive director.
Today (January 16) Jennifer Breakspear was named as the Downtown Eastside nonprofit’s new leader. She takes over for Eamonn O'Laocha, who resigned without warning last May.
PHS, which recently rebranded itself as PHS Community Services Society, is one of the largest government partners operating in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It is best known for Insite, which for many years was North America’s only low-barrier supervised-injection facility. PHS also runs 15 supportive-housing buildings in Vancouver and a number of community services such as needle distribution and disposal.
Breakspear takes over at a time when the organization and the entire Downtown Eastside are struggling with an epidemic of overdose deaths unparalleled in the city’s history.
It is projected that illicit drugs will kill more than 800 people in British Columbia in 2016. That compares to 510 last year and 370 in 2014. About 60 percent of deaths this year have been linked to the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl.
Breakspear was unavailable for an interview. In a very brief telephone call, she told the Straight her first weeks on the job would be spent getting to know the organization and its staff, and reaching out to build relationships with partners.
Breakspear is a veteran of high-profile Vancouver nonprofits. She spent the last four years serving as executive director of the B.C.-based Options for Sexual Health and before that spent four years at the helm of Qmunity, a leading LGBT organization based in Vancouver’s West End.
In 2016, PHS revenue exceeded $28 million, according to Revenue Canada filings. The bulk of that—76 percent—came from government, primarily via B.C. Housing and Vancouver Coastal Health.
O'Laocha resigned after serving as the nonprofit’s interim executive director for just eight months. Before that, Ted Bruce retired after holding the top position for 14 months.
As previously reported by the Straight, an internal email announcing O'Laocha’s departure alluded to challenges within PHS.
“Eamonn has served the Society faithfully during some very difficult times, leading the organization as it continues to develop as a strong and sustainable force, providing community based health and housing services in the Downtown Eastside,” reads a copy of the email obtained by the Straight.
PHS has experienced a period of transition since its founders were forced to leave the organization in March 2014.
Following the release of a financial audit commissioned by B.C. Housing, all four members of the Portland’s original leadership team resigned under threat of the organization being placed in receivership.
More recently, PHS operations have been complicated by Vancouver Coastal Health initiating a reorientation of health-care in the Downtown Eastside. Last April, that process saw PHS lose funding for a drop-in centre for drug users it had operated across the street from Oppenheimer Park.