Stranger Than Kindness: Allyship Versus Support in the DTES

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In recent years, young people in Vancouver have flocked to fill paid staff positions in the Downtown Eastside as support workers and harm reduction workers. These are entry level positions mostly involving front desk staffing work in supportive housing facilities. The most visible and valorized aspect of these positions is crisis management – intervening in overdoses and de-escalating conflict – although primary duties are janitorial, as well as enforcing building policy.

I myself worked as a support worker, and part of my aim in writing this piece is to speak to the problems and contradictions of this kind of work. This article attempts to address what Cindy Blackstock has called “the occasional evil of angels.” Low-income residents of supportive housing are being pushed on both sides. Disability and social assistance rates have now fallen drastically below the poverty line, but at the same time, support workers are increasingly operating without input from their clientele and without adequate respect for a mode of housing based in tenant rights and autonomy.

Over the last decade, the BC government has shifted to a model of “supportive” housing for low-income communities in Vancouver and across the province. With non-profit supportive housing units cropping up throughout the Downtown Eastside under a host of organizations (RainCity Housing, Atira Women’s Resource Society, Lookout, and PHS Community Services Society–formerly the “Portland Hotel Society”). The invention of supportive housing has redefined and lowered the standard for social housing as we knew it, replacing relatively independent and autonomous living with a form of paternalism and surveillance. In partnership with local police and other local institutions, supportive housing often shutters and disempowers poor people while keeping them under the thumb of a carceral apparatus operating at municipal, provincial and federal levels.

Many support workers in Vancouver are young artists or students, folks who would not otherwise eke a living wage in this city. Punk, house, and indie musicians and other artists whose expensive vocations could not be supported by other entry-level positions are quietly celebrated by the progressive-leaning members of this milieu. The idealistic notion that their peers perform humanistic interventions in otherwise bureaucratic and demeaning public assistance programs is a source of pride in these communities. However, these notions ignore the underpinnings of this form of labour, which find their roots in paternalism and philanthropy. There is a dissonance between the stated intentions of staff and the conditions that supportive housing reinforce for a large number of residents (or “clients” as they are often called).

Like any carceral structure, supportive housing as it exists in the DTES is disempowering for those who live in it. It engenders precarity in the lives of residents by aligning shelter and health care with punitive state initiatives like the police and the welfare system. Kafkaesque policies, including curfews, guest policies, tracking fob access, and camera surveillance throughout buildings violate ordinary tenancy rights, while spatial restrictions alienate residents from service providers and attempt to strip away the tools to organize for a new vision. In Vancouver, supportive housing is explicitly integrated into the functioning of the police force through a program called Partners in Action.

It was only in 2016 that “supportive housing” residents were granted explicit protection, albeit only partially, under the Residential Tenancy Act. Prior to this partial inclusion, supportive housing providers relied on the omission as evidence that basic tenancy rights and protections (such as giving proper cause and notice for eviction) do not apply to their residents. These measures reinforce a long history of the State using support work to enforce compliance with the status quo and to evade or ignore louder calls for community-controlled housing. They also serve to undermine community and collective organizing, as the forced displacement of tent cities (with residents then being shuffled into supportive housing) has repeatedly illustrated. New tent cities in Victoria, Maple Ridge, and Nanaimo have remained popular within marginalized communities because they offer an alternative to the entrapment between shelters and institutionalized supportive housing.

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Regarding support workers themselves, the most telling feature of their work is its temporality. Much like “gap years” or backpacking trips across Europe, one anticipates the labour they engage in with these positions will lead them somewhere else. There is a common notion that there is something to take away from your engagement with the community you serve. Little consideration is given to the asymmetrical power dynamic of these relationships and there seems to be little discomfort among staff about how under-qualified they often are to perform social service work. Of course, there are notable exceptions to this, including those workers who have been in the positions of the clients they are serving, and who are dedicated to improving the conditions of their lives.

The seeming benevolence surrounding social service work is incongruous with the transitory culture of these positions, which ostensibly exist for the long-term support of residents. For staff, secondary trauma and long hours lead to frequent burnout, reflected in the regular use of “stress leave.” Though the positions are often unionized, there is minimal movement towards pension programs, and  workers are incentivized to find “better” work. What is more, workplace culture often creates an oppositional attitude towards residents. One of the titles often given to residents is “hard-to-house.” Another trope often repeated is that this or that resident is “entitled.” This concepts undermine the sort of attitude needed to do constructive and empowering work in this neighborhood.

Folks who are stigmatized via racialization and medicalization – disabled or otherwise outside the normative “ideal body” – are relegated to a brief existence and even a shortened life. The attitude of transience and short-termism towards DTES support work is mirrored by services and social supports in Canada more broadly, reflecting a tendency to treat poverty, disability and general “need” as a passing phase warranting a one-time shot of State-mercy. Disability benefits and other forms of income assistance are so low as to be unsustainable for a person’s survival, and they are not designed to be (Melting Tallow). The welfare state is not interested in “poverty reduction,” its investment is in capital accumulation. This is why narratives around “sick” populations are distinctly linear – there is either a cure by which to return to the fold of citizenship after a period of illness, or a death near the horizon by which the State can measure a reasonable sum of money to nudge them along.

In my own role as a support worker, I eventually felt as though I had become another misshapen gear in the grinding machinery of my clients’ lives. During one shift, I went to the welfare office with a resident to help them find out why their income assistance cheques were being withheld. I spent 4 hours altogether in the office with them, negotiating with staff and security to allow my client to stay inside long enough for them to be heard by a clerk. The Ministry wanted to keep them out, and my job as a support worker was to keep them inside long enough to get the service they were entitled to. This added up to almost $100 dollars in support worker wages in a single afternoon – half of the client’s cheque for a month. Such is the structural way capital flows in social services. Money and autonomy is distributed around clients, rather than to them.

Funding is funneled into workers and ministries intended to orient those living under the legislated poverty of income assistance onto a trajectory of supposed “success.” This is a fluid prognosis, changing according to the various stigmas applied to clients or residents. For those with a history of addiction and incarceration, it may be adherence to strict programs of abstinence or pharmaceutical substitutes such as methadone or suboxone. For people with mental illnesses, it may be daily check-ins with social workers in tandem with police liaisons. But across the board, residents of supportive housing are expected to live with and abide by draconian policies of nightly room checks, strict guest sign-ins and curfews. The overarching theme of “success” by the Ministry is perceived invisibility rather than structural or systemic transformation. Support work is the front line of enforcing this invisibility.

A certain number of younger support workers and particularly artists are speaking more openly and more critically about the forces of gentrification, colonization, and exploitation that shape these neighbourhoods and the city of Vancouver at large. The social design inherent in the gentrification of Chinatown and the DTES – and the regimes of social cleansing installed alongside – are being recognized as a recolonization of unceded territory (a process in which support work plays a central role). But we are also seeing the emergence of a discourse of “decolonization” divorced from the communities it attempts to represent and align with. This hollow narrative often leads to virtue signalling. White activists can nitpick each other about “territorial acknowledgements” while simultaneously taking umbrage with political initiatives of Indigenous leaders, ignoring struggles for self determination and sovereignty. Meanwhile their very presence helps to continue squeezing Indigenous people out of the DTES. Unfortunately, the hand wringing shame of artists and activists implicated in structures of capitalism does nothing for the people of the neighbourhood.

I ask what is the real investment – spiritually, physically, ideologically – of those who work in positions as support workers? What is the long-term vision of the interventions staff believe they are performing? At the most basic level, how can one consider themself an ally when a politics based on capitalist and colonial structures of life continues to supersede the vision of Indigenous people facing the brunt of the violence and oppression these ideologies carry?

The long shifts may be stressful, but they are nothing compared to the attrition of having your financial independence delegated by a state that wishes you were dead (Melting Tallow). If you as a support worker are genuinely invested in helping the community of the DTES, divest your energy, time, and labour from the activities you need to maneuver around and commit to the struggles of the residents of the DTES on their terms, towards their vision. ■


The writer would like to credit and thank C Melting Tallow for their insights about state and public perceptions of disabled people, which have been crucial in shaping this critique.

Jakob Knudsen is an Indigenous writer of mixed Metis, Sto:lo, Dakelh and Danish ancestry. He is currently earning his BFA at Simon Fraser University, majoring in First Nations Studies with a minor in Legal Studies.