Social Housing Now!
Why Vancouver Is Not the Best Place to Live
By Nita Palmer
Vancouver, British Columbia is ranked the ‘best place to live in the world’ by a survey of 127 cities done by the Economist Magazine. However, if one takes a walk down Vancouver’s streets, and particularly Vancouver’s poorest neighborhood, the Downtown Eastside (DTES) it is painfully clear that, for the thousands living without housing or shelter in Vancouver, the city is nowhere near the ‘best place to live in the world’.
"[The Downtown Eastside] is one of the worst areas of urban blight that I've ever seen and I've traveled all over the world"
– Patricia Leidl, United Nations (UN) Population Fund
A recent article issued alongside the UN “State of World Population 2007” report singled out Vancouver’s DTES as a prime example of government disregard for a rapidly growing population living below the poverty line.
The Crisis of Human Suffering in the ‘Best Place to Live’ in the World
The Greater Vancouver Regional District estimates that there are currently 2,174 people living on the streets, although outreach workers estimate that number in reality to be four to five times higher. Until recently, the rapidly expanding number of homeless people living in Vancouver – which doubled between 2002 and 2005 – seemed to pass unnoticed by city officials. Today, however, with the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver just three years away, they have taken notice. Their solution? The ‘gentrification’ of the DTES which is an attempt to hide the raw wound of disregard for human life in the ‘best place to live in the world’. 20% of all single room occupancies (SROs), the only affordable housing available in Vancouver, have been sold or put up for sale since February 2007, according to the research and advocacy organization Pivot Legal Society. Hundreds more SROs have been shut down by municipal or provincial authorities, sometimes giving residents as little as two hours notice to pack up their things and find new accommodation.
Walking through Vancouver, it is pretty much impossible to miss the billboards proclaiming the development of this or that Olympic project. The $1.6Billion budget seems to have an endless supply of cash for the construction of ski hills and skating rinks, but little for the development of social housing, which will become only more necessary as the ‘gentrification’ of the DTES and the general lowering of wages and rise in living costs push more and more people out of their homes. A report released by the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee in June 2007 noted that there might not be enough funding to build the 3,200 units of social housing promised by the committee – another damning piece of evidence to the fact that building the Olympics and a ‘world-class city’ are more profitable and therefore more important priorities to the governments of Vancouver, BC, and Canada than preserving human life and dignity.
Vancouver’s Homelessness Crisis – A Symptom of the Disease
Unfortunately, the DTES is not an anomaly. It is really a naked reflection of all the problems that exist in the ‘advanced civilization’ of Canada’s capitalist system. 30% of the population of the DTES is Indigenous – a population level 10 times higher than anywhere else in Canada, and a reflection of the fact that Indigenous people in Canada, whether living on reserves or in the city, are the poorest demographic in Canada. Women living on the DTES face high rates of violence – in particular against women who are forced into survival prostitution by the poverty inflicted on them. All in all, it is the most oppressed sectors of the population that finds themselves trying to survive in the DTES.
The reality of life under the capitalist system directed by the governments of Canada, BC, and the city of Vancouver is that conditions of life are only going to get worse for average working and oppressed people as the global economy slides into crisis. The government knows this, but in the interest of making profit, they cannot afford spending on social housing, social programs, or an increase in the minimum wage to try to smooth out the contradictions caused by their system. It is only now, with the coming of the Olympics and the embarrassing gash of a profit-driven system marring Vancouver’s image as a world-class city, that the governments of Vancouver, BC, and Canada have attempted to even cover up the problem with building 3,200 units of social housing. Now, we see they are even rescinding on that promise.
Social Housing a Step in the Struggle for a World of Justice and Equality
The crisis of poverty and homelessness in the DTES today is truly not a shocking or unexpected one. Over the last century, as crises in the economy have come in ever more rapid succession, the quality of life for ordinary people has deteriorated as well. Today, that point is hitting an unprecedented low, and the capitalist system in Canada must be responded to by the united action of millions of poor, working, and oppressed people. As those very people, we stand nothing to gain from this system of profit for a few and poverty for many. Building a movement to fight for our rights is not an option; it is a necessity. We must educate and mobilize other poor and working people around the fight against homelessness.
Social housing must be a step in the fight against homelessness, but it cannot be the final one. Poverty and homelessness will not be stopped or stemmed with social housing. The only way to end poverty, homelessness, and ultimately human exploitation is to take a movement of poor and working people beyond demanding social housing, to fighting for a world of true justice and equality for all, a better world based not on profit making but human need.
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