VANDU blocked by Vancouver City Council from receiving new public funds

On Tuesday, the controversial non-profit organization called the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) was the only entity to be removed from the list of City of Vancouver grant recipients in operating arts and culture programs.

City staff had recommended providing $7,500 in grant funding to VANDU for their art table program benefiting mainly individuals experiencing homelessness, mental health, and addictions issues in the Downtown Eastside community. But this was flatly rejected by the ABC Vancouver party’s majority in Vancouver City Council, as a symbolic move against the organization’s past behaviour of grossly misusing public funds.

Last year, VANDU was provided with a $320,000 grant to perform street cleaning services within the Hastings Street encampment. But with a lack of any visible street cleaning work by the organization and deteriorating street cleanliness conditions, questions began to be raised over VANDU’s efforts. Eventually, VANDU leaders publicly admitted to media outlets to directing the City’s grant towards their general operations instead of the intended purpose of street cleaning.

“I know this is only $7,500 we’re talking about, and I’m a big supporter of arts and culture, but we have to draw the line somewhere. As a council, we need to send a message,” said ABC councillor Peter Meiszner during the public meeting.

The amendment to remove VANDU from being amongst the 209 organizations to receive a share of $4.35 million in municipal arts and culture grants was put forward by ABC councillor Brian Montague. In his amendment, he also stipulated the $7,500 would instead be directed towards an “alternate and appropriate organization for Indigenous-led and/or Indigenous-based programming.”

City Council approved Montague’s amendment, voting along party lines, with Green Party councillors Adriane Carr and Pete Fry and OneCity councillor Christine Boyle opposed.

“I have concerns about the guidelines that were used to recommend the grant based on past performance. I personally don’t have confidence that they would deliver the program and service, and I disagree with the funding for the organization. I just think the process in which some organizations are granted money, and others are not, is just flawed, and that’s the basis for the amendment,” said Montague.

Fry argued that while VANDU “may not be perfect in all of their operations,” he supported the grant allocation to the organization given that the dollar amount is modest, but more importantly it funds a program that provides Downtown Eastside residents with a vehicle for expression other than graffiti in Chinatown and other self-destructive behaviour.

“Indeed, VANDU has done some political things that has possibly created the scenario where we’re looking at VANDU through a difficult lens,” said Fry.

Carr added: “What we’re dealing here is a decision that’s not about a previous grant, but a current grant. I’m interested in measures that will increase people’s sense of self-confidence, self-love, and building their capacity to work positively within society at large.”

In response to the concerns that blocking the VANDU grant would impact the ability to provide an art table, ABC councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung suggested the organization has the financial capacity to deliver such a program after misusing and redirecting $320,000 for their general operations. She also made note that the $320,000 received by VANDU is less than half of the $710,000 in forthcoming direct relief measures for Chinatown and its businesses and cultural organizations, approved by City Council earlier in the same meeting.

“I don’t think any reasonable member of the Vancouver public would think by any standards, regardless of your political stripes, that it is reasonable when you have such as egregious situation of public funds versus the intention they were clearly subscribed to, and it has resulted us to have much more defined criteria,” said Kirby-Yung.

Mayor Ken Sim also weighed in on the need to uphold accountability and look at track records, stating that “it’s a privilege and not a right to do business with the City of Vancouver, and that’s the type of culture I want to lead here while I’m in office.”

ABC councillor Lenny Zhou added that providing VANDU with the grant funding would be unfair to the organizations that work very hard to follow the established rules.

Shortly after cancelling VANDU’s street cleaning contract in November, City staff began a request for proposals bidding process seeking a new contractor to perform street cleaning duties within the core of the Downtown Eastside and a northern area of Chinatown. The $400,000, six-month contract for work through the end of July will be awarded to an organization over the coming weeks.

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