VANDU arts, culture grant pulled due to ‘misuse’ of prior funds: City of Vancouver
Posted January 18, 2023 3:40 pm.
Last Updated January 19, 2023 12:07 pm.
The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) was the only group to lose its City of Vancouver arts and culture grant funding at this week’s budget meeting.
Out of the city’s annual operating budget of $1.75 billion, staff had recommended VANDU get $7,500 in funding for its community art table. However, claiming the organization had “misused” public funds in the past, council ultimately decided against giving the organization any funding at all.
Brittany Graham, executive director of VANDU, says she’s surprised by the city’s decision to pull funding.
“I feel shocked that they would be vindictive against an organization that has been helping the last couple of months with the street sweeps tent city fiasco that was started by the police pulling out very quickly without giving any notice or warning. And VANDU — with our coalition — helped the city try to figure out new solutions through an innovative pilot project. That pilot project has ended and, now, city councillors who do not know anything about the Downtown Eastside are making decisions based off of hearsay instead of reality,” she told CityNews.
Last year, VANDU was awarded a $320,000 grant to develop and implement a Block Stewardship Pilot Program on Hastings Street that included, in part, support for sidewalk cleanliness. The city says $160,000 of the grant was paid out, with the rest pending progress of the contracted work. The city says those services were not delivered on as promised.
The city says it ended its contract with VANDU after an interim assessment of the program, which it said showed that it was “evident that VANDU placed emphasis on community development and individual empowerment rather than street cleaning.”
The city went on to say in a statement that while it agrees that “this has value,” the focus needed to be on cleaning.
“The pilot was established as an alternative approach to street cleaning with the main goal of keeping sidewalks passable and clean. VANDU placed emphasis on community development and individual empowerment activities as opposed to street cleaning; the vast majority – about 90% – of the overall amount of expenditures is going towards these activities other than cleaning and the City requires the main focus to be on sidewalk cleaning and accessibility,” an email from the city adds.
Mayor Ken Sim says groups need to be held accountable, adding the one grant was withheld “because the organization in question has openly admitted that they have misused funds received by the City of Vancouver in the past.”
“In that spirit of holding groups [accountable], we decided that we’re going to look for another organization that is doing great things in the community and allocate the funds to them instead,” he told CityNews.
“VANDU has admitted that they didn’t do everything that they said they’re going to do and they allocated funds in different directions — and those are their words, not ours.”
However, Graham refutes claims that funds had been misused, saying the group actually came in “significantly under budget.”
“We’re currently finalizing the end of our grant but we are sitting around the $220,000-range for work that we did for the city related to our empowerment contract. This was not a cleaning contract, it was never supposed to be a cleaning contract. It was a contract to empower residents who live on the streets to be a part of the community and part of that was creating an infrastructure for tidying and keeping the sidewalks usable for folks while people continued to live there,” she explained.
‘It felt vindictive and punitive’
Not all councillors were in agreement with the decision to pull VANDU’s art and culture funding. Coun. Pete Fry says he “spoke against it at the time.”
“It felt vindictive and punitive, and really didn’t have a sound rationale,” Fry told CityNews.
He says while VANDU was found to have not fulfilled all the components of the previous Block Stewardship contract, the funding for that RFP wasn’t released in full.
“It was misrepresented yesterday as somehow having been misused in its entirety and even, at some points, not playing by the rules and stealing from the city — that’s not the case. We awarded them the RFP, we were pretty clear with the RFP, and it was a staff-directed decision, it wasn’t a council-directed decision and I think when it was recognized that it wasn’t really fulfilling the ultimate objectives, it was pulled and the money was not released in full,” he explained.
Noting the work VANDU does and how powerful programs like art therapy can be, especially for those who are struggling, Fry admits “$7,500 really is a pretty modest amount to support that kind of work.”
“It was, I think, an unfortunate kind of knee-jerk reaction to also, I think, some of the political ramifications of some of the advocacy that VANDU has done. They’ve been pretty critical of the mayor and his party in the run up to the election because they were endorsed by the Vancouver Police Union, and it’s no secret that [VANDU] has a terse, intense relationship with Vancouver police, so I think that was reflected in some of this,” Fry said.
The councillor feels the grant decision has the potential to “further polarize and divide the community in the Downtown Eastside, which is already struggling with these issues.”
Fry says in total, the city handed out about $4.3 million in community grants to 209 groups Tuesday.