Vancouver: A City of Homelessness and Poverty Olympics
By Nita Palmer
Turn on the TV in British Columbia province in Canada, today and you will likely see advertisements of government projects showing smiling families, glittering rivers and new highways, always ending with the motto: “BC – the Best Place on Earth.”
But if you look a little beyond the well-groomed parks and the shiny new highways, you will see a province in crisis. A recent report by the New Democratic Pary (NDP) Opposition Critic for Homelessness David Chudnovsky has put the number of homeless people in BC at 10,580 – which Chudnovsky himself calls a ‘conservative estimate.’ The homelessness crisis is no longer confined to major urban centres like Vancouver, either. In fact, homelessness in suburbs and small towns in BC is growing rapidly.
Homelessness Crisis Spreading
It is not just that the number of homeless people in BC has increased, but it is also that the type of people facing homelessness has changed. Once upon a time, it was thought that only ‘high-risk’ people faced homelessness – people with mental health or addiction problems, for example. But as more low-income housing is closed, there are whole families – often with one or both parents working – sleeping on friends’ couches, in shelters, or in tents.
According to Simon Fraser University research scientist Michelle Patterson, “Families are one of the fastest-growing groups showing up at shelters. The reasons for this include a rise in poverty, changing job markets and a lack of affordable housing. Pressures such as cuts to social programs and an ever-tightening rental market also put many families at risk.” (Report: The Faces of Homelessness Across BC)
Of course, this crisis is not confined to BC, either. This winter, 200,000 to 300,000 people across Canada faced the grim reality of spending winter without a home, according to a report by the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership. The numbers of homeless are so great that emergency shelters certainly cannot keep up, and many of these people will be spending the winter without a roof over their heads.
2010 Olympics of Homelessness and Poverty in Vancouver
Across Canada, Vancouver, BC has been perhaps the most infamous city for its homelessness crisis – and with good reason. Homelessness in Vancouver has more than tripled since 2002, and while the Metro Vancouver annual homeless count puts the number of homeless people in the Vancouver area at 2,500, homeless count volunteers report that the number could be more accurately placed at 8,000.
And yet nothing is being done to curb this humanitarian crisis. On the contrary, over the last four months 174 single-room occupancies (SROs – low budget, typically poorly maintained 10’x10’ hotel rooms), often the only housing available to people living on welfare or on low wages - have been closed or converted to more expensive housing. Seventy-six units of social housing have also been closed in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the poorest postal code in Canada.
Meanwhile, billions of dollars are being poured into the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Although the City has claimed that they do not have the money to pay for the social housing projects that were promised to come with the Olympics, they recently found $100 Million for a secret bailout deal for a floundering Olympic development company, plus millions more in over-the-table deals.
But all of the shiny new Olympic infrastructure in the world cannot hide the homelessness crisis in Vancouver, in BC, or in Canada. This country is already facing a worse homelessness crisis than it did even in the Great Depression of the 1930s. As the worldwide economic crisis deepens, it is likely to get even worse. It is projected that at least 100,000 (very conservative number) people in Canada will lose their jobs in the next year alone, which will no doubt put hundreds or thousands more on the streets.
Social Housing Now!
Poor and working people in Canada must mobilize now against this crisis of human suffering and demand social housing as one important step in our fight for a better world. In Vancouver, Streams of Justice is one the most active and consistent groups which has been doing just that. From October 14 to 18 2008, Streams of Justice organized a fast and camp-out at Vancouver’s City Hall for Homelessness Action Week. This action was followed by a rally at City Hall on Saturday October 19, organized by the Citywide Housing Coalition.
Streams of Justice is a Christian social justice organization that believes in “the relentless struggle for social justice, the unwavering affirmation of human dignity, and the joyful stance of compassionate solidarity” (www.streamsofjustice.org). Fire This Time had an opportunity to interview Dave Diewert, a main organizer and a founding member of Streams of Justice, about how his organization is raising awareness about the homelessness crisis and fighting back against it. The interview is below.
“We Can Move Toward a Just City”
An Interview with Dave Diewert, a Vancouver Downtown Eastside Activist and a Founder of Streams of Justice
By Nita Palmer
Fire This Time (FTT): First of all, can you tell us who this action is organized by? The Citywide Housing Coalition, Streams of Justice, or is it a joint effort?
Dave: It’s organized by Streams of Justice. The event here tomorrow from 1pm-2pm is organized by the Citywide Housing Coalition.
FTT: So, Streams of Justice declared the camp-out and fast this week, and with the Citywide Housing Coalition, the event tomorrow. Can you tell us a bit more about what’s been happening with the action this week and what’s going on with the event tomorrow here at City Hall?
Dave: This week corresponds with Homelessness Action Week, and today is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, so those events were kind of a catalyst for saying, well, we need to do some kind of action which raises the issue of homelessness with the public here - making people aware, keeping the heat on politicians, so it doesn’t sort of get lost off the agenda as a concern. I think the kind of action we wanted to bring about was an action that first of all was at the site of power here at City Hall, but also was an action of symbolic solidarity, coming alongside people who are hungry and homeless. So having it as a fast both from food and from shelter seemed like a powerful way to go. The Stand for Housing has been going on for a year, and it has been building momentum, so the decision by Citywide and others was to bring it to City Hall, this place of government authority, just to make that presence known here. So they planned their event here first, and I thought, well, they are going to do this stand all around City Hall here on Saturday when no one’s here. It seemed like there needed to be more than that. So that’s why we thought, well, that’s the end of Homelessness Action Week, why don’t we do something during Homelessness Action Week that leads up to it that is a presence during the week when people are coming and going and things are going on a City Hall. So that’s kind of how the timing of it came together.
FTT: What are the demands of this week and the rally tomorrow?
Dave: We presented a new demand every day that was written on a leaflet with the demand on one side and background information on the other. Our demands had to do with making the construction of new, affordable, adequate, and secure housing for people who are currently homeless or living in poverty. That has to be top priority for the government. The second one had to do with the Downtown Eastside and making sure that there was replacement of the SROs [Single Room Occupancy units] with good housing – that’s not adequate housing – and halting the condo construction which is taking place like a hurricane through there until the community comes with its own vision and says ‘this is what we want for our community.’ So that was our second one, our third one had to do with replacing the low-cost housing that’s been lost through conversions, sales, renovations, or increased rent, and the fourth one had to do with the provision of sufficient shelter for this coming winter, something more immediate. So those are our four demands. The action tomorrow, there’s a bunch of demands, some aimed at the municipal government, some at the provincial, some at the federal. I don’t remember all of them, but they roughly correspond to those. The federal demand had to do with reinstating the national housing strategy. But there are three or four demands under each of those categories, and I don’t remember them all.
FTT: What’s the response been from the city authorities and also mayor and council to you being out here this week?
Dave: Well, they were willing to recognize our right to protest, so they allowed us to be here. They kind of drew the line in the sand with setting up any structures. They said that this was the bylaw and they were going to enforce it. I think they were afraid that this was going to become a tent city, and they didn’t want that, so they made that their key point where they would come down on us. Most of the people from the mayor and city council haven’t really come out to see us, although tonight [Vancouver mayor at time of interview] Sam Sullivan dropped by. I would have thought that the two mayoral candidates for the election would have came by, but they never came by. [Vision Vancouver mayoral candidate at time of interview] Gregor Robertson did an interview a hundred feet from us and then just left. He didn’t come and say anything or do anything. We had a visit from one councilor who basically told us that the City’s doing an awful lot and why were we out here. So, that was about it from the city.
FTT: What has the response been like from people in Vancouver?
Dave: Mixed. This is a funny part of town, in a way. There’s not very much pedestrian traffic except for people who work at City Hall. So, we’ve been giving out leaflets every day but probably half or more don’t take them. And then there’s honks of support, and then there’s the ‘get a job’ kind of responses. So we’ve had all those. And, you know, interesting people will come by, a whole variety of mixed folks will come by to talk, from a developer, who drove by one day thinking ‘why don’t they just get a job’, but when he drove by the next day, he thought ‘I don’t really know who these people are, I’m going to stop and find out.’ And then in a conversation, he genuinely wanted to hear our perspective, as we were interested in hearing what his take on it was. So we had a good dialogue with him. And then other people, the Hospital Employees’ Union, they came by and said ‘hi’ and that they were in solidarity. So, it’s been good, a real mix.
FTT: So, tomorrow there’s going to be a BC-wide action. Can you tell us a bit more about what’s going on with that?
Dave: So, just a little background on these Stands for Housing – they started at Little Mountain at the project there, to raise awareness about the loss of social housing at the Little Mountain Housing Project. The idea was that the Stands for Housing were kind of drawn from the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, so the idea was to stand on corners. Everybody’s identified with one element, a turquoise scarf, and a banner that says ‘Homes for All’. So they did that for a number of months and then said ‘we’ve gotta take it wider than just this one corner’. So they came to the Citywide Housing Coalition, and said ‘can we take it citywide?’ And so, we began to do it on 12 or 15 corners, every Saturday afternoon from 1-2pm. And then they said, ‘well, can we take it province-wide?’ And they began to develop networks throughout the province and sent a kit out to everybody who was interested. And so on the first Saturday of May, they probably had 80 stands throughout the province. So this has been kind of gathering momentum, and they did some more in September, and they did a big event at Little Mountain a couple of weeks ago. And this one, they really asked people from all over the province to meet at their own city halls. So in Vancouver here, but in Nanaimo, or Victoria, or wherever, meet at your own City Hall and do this Stand for Housing there. So rather than spread out on all of the corners, all the stands converged in one place. It’s kind of interesting, because it’s really kind of a middle-class action - like it’s people who probably rarely have been involved with standing on a street corner holding a sign or handing out literature in their lives, so it’s a step to them to become more politically engaged in a public way. So it’s interesting to see the momentum that’s kind of picked up.
FTT: So, there’s 35 actions happening in BC tomorrow, I heard. Is that correct?
Dave: (Laughs). You know more than I do. Maybe that’s true, 35 cities I guess. Wow.
FTT: What’s your message that you want to send to people in Vancouver, in BC and across Canada with this action?
Dave: Well, I think that, as the UN Special Rapporteur for Housing said last year, you know, we have a homelessness crisis in the whole country. And yet the government of Canada registered a $14-billion surplus last year. It’s absolutely outrageous that, given that that kind of surplus there are people who have nothing on the street. So it’s really a message that they need to build housing for people who are homeless, as well as people who are living in unacceptable and inadequate conditions. I think that’s the message: we’ve got the resources we need to be doing something. So, putting pressure hopefully government leaders will step up to the plate in a serious way.
FTT: So what’s next for Streams of Justice after this action?
Dave: That’s a good question – I don’t really know. We do some educational stuff, so we’ve developed a multimedia play kind of presentation, called ‘Trouble in Paradise: Being Poor in a World-Class City’ and we’re putting that on for the Heart of the City Festival in November. So we’ve got work to do on that. We’ve done that four or five times, but we’re redoing some of it. We have our regular meetings, but at this point we don’t have another main action planned.
FTT: Finally, how can people respond to this? To help you – I mean to help this cause?
Dave: I was thinking the other day that if people who had homes took up certain kinds of practices and acts of solidarity with people without homes and said ‘we’re going to stand with you, this is an issue that we need to be dealing with so that we can move towards a just city’, you know, things could really change. I guess the ways to do that would be to educate one another and to press the leadership, particularly in light of this upcoming election. I mean, we’re going to get three elections within the year. And so, municipally to say ‘where are you at on housing?’ I mean, this is absolutely crucial, and we’re not going to let you give us campaign promises and then disappear on the issue. So I think there has to be that kind of vigilance and tenacity on keeping the issues in front of people. And that may emerge on the provincial scene too, next May for sure. We tried to raise that on the federal scene too, a little bit. Citywide did some actions, but it’s not even on the radar for the Conservatives. They seem to think that the market will take care of everything. It needs to be pushed, certainly at the municipal and provincial level for sure. So I think that that has to happen. So as people become more aware, as we’re talking more about it and beginning to take it to places where these kind of things are presented to politicians, that’s what happens. So I think, well, it sounds like kind of dull, boring ways of going at it, but I don’t know, it seems one way to make politicians accountable to the people who put them in power. But maybe there are more creative things that can be done as well.
FTT: Thank you very much for the interview.
For more information about Streams of Justice, please visit: www.streamsofjustice.org.
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