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Dan Fumano: Public drinking as a health measure — Vancouver eyes allowing booze in DTES 'parklet'

Russell Maynard in front of 111 Princess St. in Vancouver on February 22, 2021.
Russell Maynard in front of 111 Princess St. in Vancouver on February 22, 2021.

The idea of allowing beer consumption on a Vancouver street corner is being pitched as both a public health measure and a great moment of civic compromise.

City council is considering the creation of a small curbside “parklet” on a quiet side street in the Downtown Eastside where public booze consumption would be legalized. The proposal has support from some less-expected sources, including the local business association and the cops.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is cited as a reason, some harm reduction advocates say it’s long overdue.

The city staff report on Wednesday’s council agenda outlines a plan to address the “urgent need for a safe place for drinkers in the DTES,” noting: “Unlike other forms of illicit drugs, alcohol is legal and regulated so it is often overlooked in harm reduction conversations; however, an alcohol harm-reduction lens is critical to support this community of at-risk substance users.”

The idea is basically for an outdoor expansion of the Community Managed Alcohol Program, or CMAP, which PHS Community Services has operated in the DTES for more than a decade. The temporary parklet would be built in front of CMAP’s home at 111 Princess Ave., on the streetside space used for parking cars. It would be similar to the temporary patios that have popped up outside restaurants around town in the last year, aiming to reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission.

CMAP has helped some of the city’s most at-risk alcoholics, said Russ Maynard, senior manager of programs for PHS Community Services, including reaching people consuming what he calls “non-beverage alcohol” such as hand sanitizers, mouthwash or rubbing alcohol.

“This program connects with people who are in that kind of a dark place — and there is no one drinking hand sanitizer who is not in a dark place — and it really works to encourage that person to switch and come and connect to the group,” Maynard said. CMAP lets drinkers access affordable beer and wine they can make themselves, to help them stop drinking more harmful substances like hand sanitizer.

Managed alcohol programs can help save lives, research from the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria has shown , helping reduce acute alcohol-related harms such as violence, alcohol poisoning and death due to exposure.

CMAP also helps its roughly 50 regular members by providing a sense of community — so people aren’t drinking by themselves in alleyways — and connecting them with services like the medical clinic in the CMAP Drinker’s Lounge.

Research has consistently shown alcohol has the highest economic cost to society of any substance, both in B.C. and across Canada . The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction estimated in 2018 that alcohol cost the country’s economy more than $14 billion in a single year, more than four times the cost of all opioids combined.

The people who would be using the Princess Avenue parklet tend to have “few to no other options,” Maynard said. Most are homeless, or if they do have housing, they may not be allowed to have guests. They typically do not have sufficient income to drink at a bar.

This bylaw amendment for the DTES parklet follows a pilot project last year enabling BYOB plazas in designated areas around town, and it would mean, Maynard said, “allowing people some space so that they’re not automatically breaking the law just by doing something that’s normally legal: enjoying a beer with a friend.”

At present, the bus stop outside the Astoria Hotel at 769 East Hastings has turned a sort of makeshift open-air drinking area. The problems and disorder that have arisen there — including a fatal stabbing last summer — are a key reason why the executive director of the Strathcona Business Improvement Association, Theodora Lamb, supports the Princess booze parklet.

People have been drinking in various outdoor spaces around the neighbourhood for years, but Lamb said the Astoria bus stop became much busier and more chaotic last year.

The pandemic had all kinds of destabilizing effects on the neighbourhood, including restrictions on visitors in social housing and altering the illicit drug supply.

“COVID brought this all to a head,” Lamb said. “It’s a perfect storm, and it landed at this intersection” in the 700-block of East Hastings.

After public safety complaints skyrocketed for that stretch of Hastings last year, Lamb’s business association has been part of a committee, along with members of Vancouver Coastal Health, city staff, PHS, and some of the crowd who drink at the Astoria bus stop, working out a safer and better alternative for all involved.

Lamb hopes some of the people currently hanging out at the Astoria bus stop could be attracted to the Princess parklet, where they’ll have washroom access and the support of PHS staffers if need be.

“We represent the businesses and the business perspective, but we also can’t ignore the health outcomes,”  she said. “I think there’s a difference between a sanctioned site that has resources … and expertise, versus a public bus stop.”

The idea is also backed by the Vancouver Police Department, which has a long history of supporting harm reduction efforts dating back to when the department’s leaders backed the creation of the continent’s first legal supervised drug consumption facility in the Downtown Eastside almost 20 years ago.

“We recognize and appreciate that extraordinary measures need to be taken during the pandemic, and as such, support the city’s efforts to find different solutions,” said VPD spokeswoman Simi Heer in an emailed statement.

“Our interest is in ensuring that the appropriate rules and monitoring are in place at the site to address public safety issues like drinking and driving and the consumption of alcohol by youth.”

The report before council this week includes other pieces, such as a request for provincial funding to support CMAP’s operations.

The Princess booze parklet idea is bound to raise some eyebrows and be unpopular with some, but seems to have support of key parties.

“I’m not pretending this is going to fix everything,” Lamb said. “It’s really imperfect, but it is a huge step forward. Everyone came to the table and recognized that the businesses needed help, but so do the folks who are drinking … This is the compromise.”

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021

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