Earlier this month, Jennifer Breakspear took the reins of the Portland Hotel Society (PHS) at a difficult time in the Downtown Eastside nonprofit’s history.
The 25-year-old organization’s founders were forced to leave in March 2014 following the release of a financial audit that included evidence of mismanagement. Then Ted Bruce, PHS’s first interim executive director, retired after just 14 months on the job. He was followed by Eamonn O’Laocha, who resigned without warning last May after only eight months in that position. Then came B.C.’s overdose epidemic, which put PHS staff on the frontlines of a crisis that killed 215 people in Vancouver last year.
In her first interview since she was named PHS’s new executive director, Breakspear told the Straight her top priority is to ensure staff get support in what is still a difficult time for the organization.
“They’re running on fumes and I’m worried about them,” Breakspear said in a Downtown Eastside coffee shop.
“We don’t see an imminent end to this crisis in sight,” she continued. “We need to be supporting the people who are doing this work. That’s about giving them the time they need, the staff they need, and the emotional support they need.”
Breakspear spent the past four years serving as executive director of the B.C.-based Options for Sexual Health; before that, she spent four years leading Qmunity, a leading LGBT organization based in Vancouver’s West End. She revealed that the challenges PHS faces are what drew her to the job.
“When I started my work at Qmunity, I was hired to deal with some issues,” she explained. “I did what I set out to do there. When I was hired at Opt, there were some things that needed to be dealt with and I was brought in to do those things.” Prior to those positions, she worked for 10 years as a paramedic in Ontario.
PHS is one of the largest government partners operating in the Downtown Eastside. It is best known for Insite, which for many years was North America’s only low-barrier supervised-injection facility, but PHS also runs 15 supportive-housing buildings in Vancouver and a number of community services such as needle distribution and disposal. 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.
Breakspear said another of her priorities will be to diversify funding. She acknowledged that private money has never been a big part of PHS’s budget but added: “There’s no reason it can’t be.”
A second opportunity that Breakspear said PHS sees are the applications for supervised-injection sites filed by other cities across Canada that are expected to soon receive approval from Ottawa.
“Is there a role for us to play?” she asked. Breakspear said PHS could secure contracts to manage those sites, though that’s the more complicated option. The simpler—and, perhaps, more likely—scenario, she continued, would be for PHS to dispatch consultant teams that would work with communities to get new injection sites off the ground.
“We are well situated to do that,” she said. “We could go in, do that sort of thing…but then pull back to Vancouver and have that squad ready to respond elsewhere in the province when needed.”