Response to Pete McMartin’s article “The high cost of misery in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

We are writing in response to Pete McMartin’s article (January 5th, 2016) in the Vancouver Sun about Dr. Julian Somers’ recent study of the costs incurred by high-frequency offenders. While the study is problematic on its own, McMartin’s coverage of it is highly misleading and serves to perpetuate stigma and detrimental stereotypes of Downtown Eastside residents. This is the same journalist who in June 2014 described Downtown Eastside as a “festering sore in the heart of Vancouver” and “a sinkhole to hundreds of millions of tax dollars.”

In his article McMartin fails to emphasize a basic fact about the study, namely that the study’s sample of high-frequency offenders chosen from the Downtown Community Court only represents a small subset of high frequence offenders sentenced at that Court. The study’s focus is individuals who fall into two specific categories: those who are among the top 10 % of high-frequency offenders (based on how many sentences they have received 2003-2012) and those who are among the top decile users of the following service categories: community physician services; hospital days; pharmaceutical costs; or income assistance. Only 321 individuals out of 14,372 individuals who were served sentences at the Downtown Community Court during the study’s time period (2003-2012) met this criteria.

In other words, the health and policing costs incurred by this group is not representative of all offenders sentenced at the community court. While the high-frequency offenders under community supervision incurred an average cost of $168,389 in health, social welfare, and justice services over the five years, and those in the custody group incurred an average cost of $246,899, the general offender sentenced at the community court incurred only an average combined cost of $53,003 for the five years. McMartin conveniently fails to mention this basic aspect of the study, and instead uses the costs incurred by the top 321 high-frequency offenders and top health care consumers not just in order to make vast and generalizing statements about all offenders but also about all Downtown Eastside residents.

McMartin frames the problem as a Downtown Eastside problem, as indicated to readers through his title, “The high cost of misery in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.” However, nowhere in the study does it say that the high-frequency offenders studied, or the offenders in general, are Downtown Eastside residents. While it is likely that a number of the study’s subjects live in the Downtown Eastside, all we know about the offenders is that they were sentenced at the Downtown Community Court, which means that they live across Downtown Vancouver including the West End, False Creek and Coal Harbour.

In response to the study’s finding that the high-frequency offenders spent a third of the study period in jail and incurred $85,344 in health costs and $38,088 in social assistance within the same five-year span, McMartin writes “that [their accumulated health bills] would be hilarious if it weren’t tragic.” It is unclear to us how there is anything remotely hilarious about the fact that people with mental illness are living in poverty, having to survive on abysmally low welfare payments, are in and out of the hospital and are spending a third of their lives behind bars.

Indeed, the study found that 99 per cent of the high-frequency offenders had at least one psychiatric diagnosis, while more than 80 per cent were dual-diagnosis patients dealing with substance abuse issues and at least one other mental disorder. Perhaps one of the most important and distressing findings of this study is that people with mental illness are spending a third of their life behind bars. Yet McMartin is not concerned about these individuals, their life stories, or their chances of recovery. For McMartin these people are just a line in a budget, and his main concerns are the demoralizing effects on the “fatigued public.”

Maybe the problem is not the spending on supports and services provided in the Downtown Eastside, which remains abysmally low and highly institutionalized. Maybe the real problem is that the people with mental illness are treated as criminals and repeatedly put in jail instead of getting the supports and care that they need. A recent VCH consultation with DTES residents found that community members felt that “Vancouver’s criminal justice system often interferes with health care” and that many experienced interactions with the police as “traumatizing or harmful to their health.”

Indeed, maybe the real problem is the opposite of McMartin’s conclusion: that the government is not spending enough when it comes to social supports. Income assistance hasn’t changed since 2007. The housing situation for low-income people is deteriorating. Homelessness is increasing. Arrests under section 28 have skyrocketed as cuts to mental health advocacy has increased police interaction with people in mental distress. Charges related to minor bylaw offences, such as street vending, have increased and made low-income people criminals merely for trying to make ends meet. These factors together have made it harder for low-income people with mental illness, disability and chronic medical conditions to survive.