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Against city staff advice, Vancouver council voted not to give $7,500 to the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) to continue its art table program.
ABC Coun. Brian Montague, who brought forward the motion, said on Tuesday, “I personally don’t have confidence that they would deliver the program and service, and I disagree with the funding for the organization.”
VANDU had applied for $7,500 to continue its art table program, which has run with an annual arts and culture contribution from the city since 2020.
Of the 84 arts and culture funding applications that Vancouver received, staff recommended 59 programs be funded. VANDU’s application was the only one denied by the council, with the ABC majority voting in favour of withholding funding, and Greens Pete Fry and Adrianne Carr and OneCity’s Christine Boyle opposed.
Brittany Graham, executive director of VANDU, told the Straight that she was “shocked and disheartened” by the council decision to cut funding. Art has an important therapeutic role, she said.
“There’s a lot of deaths and grieving in this neighbourhood, and there are not a lot of services for therapy and therapeutic programming,” she said. "Art is a place for people to put their frustrations, their grief, their celebrations into a piece. And they can also participate in these groups with other people who are feeling similar feelings and so that allows for individuals to feel less alone, to be able to be creative, to have an outlet for their own emotions.”
Graham noted that the grant went towards paying artists for their time.
“They’re still taking a pay cut to do that. We do actually supplement the program with your donations to continue to support residents to participate.”
Comments made by city councillors indicated that the decision to withhold funding was made due to VANDU as an organization, not due to the specific program in question. ABC Coun. Peter Meiszner said that he is “a big supporter of arts and culture, but we have to draw the line somewhere. As a council, we need to send a message.”
In November, a six-month, $320,000 contract awarded to VANDU was ended prematurely. The city told Global News, “After an interim assessment of the program, it is evident that VANDU placed emphasis on community development and individual empowerment rather than street cleaning.”
A July 2022 document provided to the Straight by VANDU indicates the organization was funded for a “coalition block stewardship pilot program,” which had eight key deliverables. Street cleanliness was one, while the other seven were related to coordination and community empowerment.
“I feel like the city framing, especially city councillors framing this as a cleaning grant that we didn’t comply with, is their way of taking the blame off of them and moving it to a small organization,” Graham said. She said public bathrooms, showers, and housing for currently unhoused people would all help with street cleanliness, but the city has not provided them.
Anti-poverty activist and former COPE councillor Jean Swanson tweeted that the decision to withhold funding was “vindictive.”
Healing potential of art just scuttled by vindictive ABC council https://t.co/aWog3E0wS8— Jean Swanson (@JeanSwanson_) January 18, 2023
Vancouver cultural grant recipient DOXA Festival tweeted that it stood in support of VANDU, “in respect of the time and consideration that goes into arts funding recommendations.”
DOXA stands in support of VANDU As recipients of @CityofVancouver cultural grants, and in respect of the time and consideration that goes into arts funding recommendations, DOXA condemns council's rejection of the Art Table. VANDU has begun fundraising: https://t.co/Mq11xQWBgo https://t.co/Vtc7KsROaR— DOXA Festival (@DOXAFestival) January 18, 2023
In his movement to deny the funding, Coun. Montague stipulated that $7,500 should go to “alternate and appropriate organization for Indigenous-led and/or Indigenous-based programming.”
“The irony is, is by him removing this contract from VANDU, it actually impedes our Indigenous-led organization, the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, from participating in these workshops,” Graham said. She noted that the art table had employed knowledge keepers and Indigenous artists to share their crafts with members, such as beading or weaving.
The community, meanwhile, has mobilized to replace VANDU’s lost funding.
Karen Ward, drug policy advocate and former VANDU member, set up a GoFundMe to replace the cut funding. At the time of writing, it had received $10,000 within 48 hours from 185 donors—well above the initial goal of $7,500.
Ward told the Straight that the crowdfund’s success showed support for the organization’s work.
“[VANDU]’ll have the grant amount, the full amount, in the[ir] pocket by the weekend. Drug users have widespread public support and not just in word but in real, tangible material support.”
Currently, the drug poisoning crisis is killing an average of six people in BC per day. Ward said that the support was “better than hope alone.”
“We have allies and they’re right here.”