Part 2: People living in poverty

By Alison Taylor

Moving to Vancouver from Edmonton, one of my first impressions was about the obvious divide between rich and poor. One only has to walk from Yaletown to the downtown eastside to register this disparity. Researchers who have studied rising neighbourhood inequality over time in Canada find there has been a significant rise in inequality in Vancouver over time (as in Toronto and other major cities). The percentage of low-income individuals (more than 20% below average) in Vancouver grew from 10% in 1970 to 29% in 2015.[1] Over the same period, the percentage of high-income individuals grew from 12% to 20%. At the same time, low-income people are being displaced, with middle-class gentrification “nibbling around the edges of the traditionally low-income inner city neighbourhoods, including the downtown eastside, Gastown, Chinatown, Strathcona, Grandview-Woodland and Mount Pleasant.”[2]
In Vancouver’s downtown eastside (DTES), the COVID-19 crisis is layered on top of an overdose epidemic that has been going on for years. More than 5,000 people in BC died as a result of illicit drug toxicity between 2016 and 2019.[3] Addiction is a health emergency, and is related to other social vulnerability factors.
The level of homelessness and insecure housing in the DTES community has required quick action with the arrival of the pandemic. As Richardson writes, “How can you wash your hands frequently if you don’t have access to a sink in your room or don’t have shelter at all? How do you stay two metres away from people when you live in extremely close quarters?”[4]
The city responded by converting Coal Harbour Community Centre and Roundhouse Community Centres into housing for homeless people. Meanwhile, the province has committed to moving people in Oppenheimer Park into temporary housing by May 9th.[5] It remains to be seen whether this is sufficient to address both crises.
Advocates hope that low income residents in the DTES and other parts of Vancouver will be eligible for federal COVID-19 benefits, and the provincial government has announced an increase in income assistance for individuals not eligible for these benefits. But lack of digital access to information and help with completing applications (e.g., from librarians, adult English Second Language and literacy educators, and settlement workers whose offices are now closed) introduces additional barriers for low-income people.[6] The loss of Chinatown businesses in the downtown eastside between 2009 and 2015 partly because of gentrification[7] may also be exacerbated by COVID-19.
The pandemic has shone a spotlight on “wicked” issues that are longstanding—poverty, racism, homelessness, and addiction. How does Canada compare with other countries in terms of income inequality? The Gini coefficient is a statistical measure of the distribution of income or wealth within a population. Comparisons of this measure across OECD countries for 2014-15 suggest Canada is below Nordic and Western European countries, and is slightly above the OECD average in terms of income inequality.[8]
So, what is to be done? Interestingly, the pandemic has opened up conversations about guaranteed income support and basic income. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh recently called for Universal Basic Income program to be introduced, and researchers like Diane Pohler (University of Toronto) have proposed a Targeted Basic Income program.[9] In a recent article, Pohler and colleagues write,
“A targeted basic income is a feasible, efficient, and equitable option for addressing income precarity during the ongoing health pandemic. It would provide a direct economic stimulus by putting money into the hands of the people most likely to spend it, and more importantly, into the hands of those most likely to need it. And once the pandemic is over, we can discuss how to make the policy permanent. As Canadians will increasingly come to understand, people can fall into poverty through no fault of their own.”[10]
A different approach to drug use is also necessary. If addiction is seen as an illness, then access to health services, access to safe supply, and decriminalization of drugs for personal use are all part of this new approach. The people most affected by this health crisis are doubtless in the best position to contribute to solutions, like many social problems. [11]
Questions related to the displacement of low-income residents and Chinese seniors in the downtown eastside are also important to keep on the table as the effects of the pandemic reside. If we don’t want a return to a society where some members are seen as disposable, actions need to be taken now.
[1] See 2017 presentation by Dr. David Hulchinki (University of Toronto):
[2] See Globe and Mail article by Kerry Gold:
[3] See report by CTV, February 24, 2020:
[4] See story by UBC researcher Lindsey Richardson:
[5] See information at:
[6] See article by Suzanne Smythe at:
[7] See article: Declining Chinatown food businesses in Georgia Strait:
[8] See 2017 presentation by Dr. David Hulchinki (University of Toronto):
[9] See Global news story:
[10] Find article at:
[11] For more information about the opioid crisis from the perspective of drug users, see podcast “Crackdown” about drugs, drug policy and the drug war led by drug user activists in Vancouver: