‘YELP for the marginalized’: a new resources platform for Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

In our ‘Trailblazers’ series, we bring you perspectives on creative leadership, social innovation, and positive change from THNK’s worldwide participant community. Today, Kate Inglis interviews entrepreneur Mark Brand, Class One participant and collaborating innovator on THNK Vancouver’s Future of Capitalism Challenge. PAL — Brand’s contribution and digital solution for the upward mobility of homeless people — upcycles smartphones to create a closed, token-like currency for food, housing, and healthcare. It’s good listening taken to the streets — which, says Brand, is often more rare than food and shelter.

‘Marginalization’ is treating people as insignificant or peripheral. You’re working to distribute food and shelter. In addition to meeting basic needs, can we also counter marginalization by asking homeless people what they think, and by listening?

Absolutely. As privileged people, we don’t realize what a luxury conversation is. It’s one thing to improve access to good food, safe shelter, and healthcare for a night or for a day. We’ve got to address those needs. But upward mobility comes from access to a caring community.

Think of the rat playground study that was just done. It’s not just a matter of seeing whether a lone rat will choose healthy water or cocaine-laced water. It’s incorporating community — adding multiple rats, and elements of play — and seeing how companionship changes our vulnerability to drugs. Isolation leads to poor health and poor choices. Friends are the antidote. To make people more upwardly mobile, introduce more camaraderie, more community, and more listening—take away the malice and the stress. This is a big part of what PAL does. This is my life’s work.

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$380 million is spent every year on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with little change to date in upward mobility. You’ve created what you loosely call ‘YELP for the marginalized’. What’s PAL’s status right now?

We are set to launch a 250-person pilot across five agencies that cover native people, youth, the elderly, and everyone in between. When we roll out the prototype, we’ll have a street team of 15 to help people use it, ask them what they’re looking for, and get real-time feedback. We’ll be spending a lot of time sitting with users. Without a voice — without us consulting these communities to come up with new ideas — we won’t ever change anything in a lasting way.

We don’t know what we don’t know, which is always the case when you’re about to launch any project. You’ve got to conceive of it as best you can, and then roll it out and fix as you learn.

Read more about Brand’s PAL project in the Future of Capitalism Challenge Report.

Why are we so resistant to facing what we don’t know?

Ego gets in the way. If a homeless person were to ask us for something on the street, and we couldn’t provide what they want within our comfort zone, it would make us feel guilty. We don’t like feeling that way, so we avoid the whole scenario and don’t engage at all. It’s the same problem in volunteerism—everyone’s busy in life, and we get overwhelmed, and so we don’t tend to confront the information or the human being that’s right in front of us.

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What led you to the Downtown Eastside?

Osmosis. I started my first business on the downtown eastside in 2006 and battled with addiction myself, just before that. I know what that kind of isolation is like. I also know what it takes to help someone out of it — to help people find their purpose and place through rehabilitation, food, shelter, work, and community building.

You’ve been working on it for nine years in that one neighbourhood. Can we eradicate homelessness?

I know that we can end homelessness for those who want to be housed. That’s easy. It just takes resources, time, and understanding. But it’s not always that simple. Politicians sometimes jump up and say, “We are going to end homelessness,” but whether a manifestation of addiction, trauma, or mental illness, some people choose to live on the streets.

We need to create a system so that when people are ready, they’ve got a home waiting for them. It’s more about creating openness and possibility around homelessness, rather than eradicating it. PAL is a bridge. It’s one way of being there, ready, when people are ready. There’s actually not a lack of resources, services, or giving. We just need to communicate that availability in better ways.

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Is that need for communication a function of scaling, in THNK speak?

Exactly. It’s about improving access to a system rather than growing a pile of assets. Think of it this way: Saint Paul’s Hospital has only 14 emergency beds, but 150 transient visitors per day. People don’t know that there are women’s’ clinics, aboriginal clinics, clinics for everyone. People who need help often don’t know it’s there, and there’s overload and a lack of distribution efficiency as a result.

We have great resources. We have financial support through government and NGOs, volunteers, job and housing programs, emergency goods. It’s all there, but it needs to exist within in a better system. With PAL, we’ll be able to track availability against usage. From there, we can reallocate the funds, services, and goods that we have to where they’re most needed and appreciated.

Where do you see yourself in a few years?

Right now, I’m operating both with and without urgency. I have focus and intent, but it’s tempered with calm. I’m mindful in my decision-making. Where we are right now with the PAL project has so much potential.

I’ve never once started something that didn’t come to fruition, but with the community that I now have with my THNK classmates — we’re in touch every single day — I can extend my reach.

Read more about Brand’s PAL project in the Future of Capitalism Challenge Report.

Interested in becoming a part of the THNK community? Learn more.

Mark Brand is one of Vancouver’s most recognized social entrepreneurs. He has founded eight iconic businesses in downtown Vancouver, including the celebrated social enterprise Save On Meats. A fighter for Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Mark brings energy to a struggling and disjointed community by balancing sound business practices and social justice.