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Shelters, transition houses and safe houses in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) turn away about 200 people each night, leaving many on the streets without access to basic amenities.
A press conference held on July 4 by Power of Women (POW) at the DTES Women's Centre revealed a group of women who have experienced -- and continue to experience -- poverty first-hand in a myriad of unsettling circumstances. Some young, some old, and all looking a little weary, the women who assembled to share their stories and their demands were exasperated, but not lacking in focus or energy. They seemed to relish the opportunity to speak out and possibly be heard by as many people as watch the evening news. The room was charged with a feeling of legitimacy that can only come from the recounting of lived struggle. They took turns speaking and acknowledging one another. Some had a lot to say, and said it loud, while others were only there to share a few succinct words. The press conference came days after the group presented an open letter to Mayor Sam Sullivan and City Council. The letter challenges the 11-member council to swap homes with POW members for eight weeks. The demand was spurred by the upcoming 2010 Olympic Games; the number of homeless in Vancouver doubled in 2005 to approximately 2174 and is predicted to triple due to the Olympics. These figures do not account for a much larger population that pays for sub-standard housing in Vancouver’s DTES; their situations rendered increasingly more precarious by rising housing prices and urban development, the impoverished are finding that there are fewer and fewer places to go.
Canada's poorest neighbourhood, the DTES has long been dubbed a nucleus of deplorable living conditions. People are forced to live in hotel rooms and boarding houses due to an affordable housing crisis of massive proportions. Many such hotels are notorious for sudden and unexplained evictions. For women, indigenous people and people with disabilities, obstacles quickly accumulate. For those able to find work, the province has not made things much easier. B.C.'s privatization of public services has cost over 20,000 unionized workers their jobs, three-quarters of whom are women. The B.C. Human Rights Commission and Ministry of Women's Equality, both considered tools to fight discrimination, have been eliminated and pay equity provisions in B.C. have been repealed. This means that there is no longer a requirement that women receive equal pay for work of comparable value to that performed by men. Women working low-income jobs, whether or not they have dependants, often live below the poverty line and seldom have the time or energy to investigate the reasons behind the scarcity they encounter on a daily basis.
Cuts to legal aid and to income assistance, the closure of women's centres, political assaults on women's advocacy and support services, the lack of childcare support, cuts to welfare and changes to eligibility for welfare, the rising cost of living, and low-income work: these have all had devastating, gendered effects. While women have historically been marginalized in politics and public planning, they carry the burden of care-work and are therefore the most directly-affected by those policies. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cuts to Status of Women Canada (SWC) centres and his cancelled agreement with the provinces for more daycare spaces has many feeling that women's rights are being trampled upon by the government, which is systematically eliminating institutions intended to secure them. The budget allotted to SWC has been cut from $13 million to $5 million, leaving 12 of their 19 offices facing closure, and indicating an end to core funding for all 37 Women's Centres in B.C. In an effort to depoliticize SWC, the government has prohibited the agency from funding groups that undertake advocacy for women's rights. The word "equality" has also been removed from the agency's mandate.
At the press conference, many members of POW described the physical conditions of the "way of life" that they experience: hotel rooms are rarely, if ever, cleaned; faeces, condoms and clothes from previous tenants are often left strewn about; most often, rooms are infested by bugs or rodents; bathrooms are generally shared and sometimes lack a shower; people that have paid rent for years, sometimes decades, are evicted without notice or justification; and the expulsion of their belongings, and themselves, is often police-enforced. Ex-sex worker and POW member Susanna Kilroy spoke of hoping to "survive the Olympics." Another woman, Beatrice Star, said she hopes and prays "not to get evicted before 2010." POW Member and indigenous rights activist Anita Chubb-Kennedy said: "where is everybody's social conscience? These people are not animals. It's social cleansing, what they're doing." Chubb-Kennedy invited Phil Fontaine, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, to comment on the situation facing indigenous people in the DTES: "every native is supposed to have a house, but the actual situation is comparable to the third world...we [aboriginal peoples] are still the first owners of the country," she said. "It's not up to Stephen Harper to 'give' land that's not his. The treaties aren't done being worked through." 'No Olympics on stolen Native land' has become a rallying cry for indigenous resistance to the games. "One question I think deserves a bit of focus is the athletes," said Kilroy. "Do they know? That people are dying?"
A June 2007 report by the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) found that 2 million people have been forcibly displaced in the last 20 years to clear space for the Olympic Games. Jean du Plessis, executive director of COHRE, said, "Our research shows that little has changed since 1988 when 720,000 people were forcibly displaced in Seoul, South Korea, in preparation for the Summer Olympic Games. It is shocking and entirely unacceptable that 1.25 million people have already been displaced in Beijing, in preparation for the 2008 Games, in flagrant violation of their right to adequate housing." The hosting of the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 as well as those in Sydney in 2000 led to immense difficulties faced by tenants, boarders and lodgers, ranging from substantial rent increases, no-fault evictions and the closure of cheap rooms. Much like Mayor Sullivan's "Project Civil City," which many contend is aimed to police and criminalize Vancouver's poor, Atlanta and Sydney both undertook measures to "clear the streets" of the poor in order to make way for an enormous influx of tourists. In 2004, the Olympics in Athens forced the eviction of the Roma community of Marousi for a parking lot and road enlargements.
A march for safe and long-term affordable housing organized by POW and held on June 8 occurred in solidarity with the Women Against Poverty Collective (WAPC) in Toronto, who on June 3 orchestrated a housing takeover to draw attention to the connection between safe housing and women's ability to live free from violence. WAPC members, along with many others, marched to an abandoned building near Sherbourne and Bloor with the intention of converting it to safe housing. Once inside, the women hung a banner and pitched tents on the property, saying that they would keep the building and provide their own affordable housing for women and their children. The group said this action is necessary because the government hasn’t followed through on promises for housing and childcare. The police ended the standoff, arresting two people in the process.
In one of Vancouver's better-known anti-Olympics rallies held in February, the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC), and the Vancouver Board of Trade were celebrating the disclosure of a "three-year countdown clock" in the downtown business district. Native People from all over B.C. participated in the rally, together with non-native members of the Anti-Poverty Committee, who are protesting the gentrification of their neighbourhood and the eviction of hundreds from low-income housing in the DTES. Seven protesters were arrested during the protest. Tselletkwe of the Native Youth Movement (NYM) made a statement upon her release, stating: "Our land is not for sale, we are still at war with Canada, we have never surrendered our land. We want the whole world to know not to come to our country and to boycott Canada and the 2010 Olympic Games. Tourism is not welcome here."
Unlike members of POW, or NYM, who are fighting for their homes and their land and who would rather see the Olympics shut down than have to deal with the catastrophe that it will wreak on the quality of their lives, the province has made choices that reflect a desire for worldwide Olympic tourism. In June 2004, Visa announced two global agreements with Tourism Vancouver and Tourism Whistler to promote domestic and international travel in the run-up to and during the 2010 Olympics. The multi-million-dollar global agreements will offer Visa cardholders worldwide value-added offers and incentives to visit Vancouver and Whistler and are expected to stimulate tourism spending in Western Canada. Tourism Vancouver maintains that their leadership “benefits the society, culture, environment and economy of Greater Vancouver.”
The proposed House Swap with the women of the DTES is intended to breed understanding through experience. POW member Joan Morelli pointed out that "even the well-meaning politicians don't understand. That's why we're challenging them. There is no understanding without experience." The swap is also focused on issues of respect: "if Sullivan wants a civil city, let politicians show some courtesy," said Morelli. Council members would live on the same amount as an average single person on social assistance: $610 per month. After the cost of shelter, this averages to less than $8 a day. As it is believed that it would be much easier for Council members to rent hotel rooms due to the fact that many wear their privileged lifestyles on their sleeves, and that many are, in fact, white, or male, at least two of the eight weeks must be spent homeless. Meanwhile, the women who offered the challenge would live as the Councillors do. To date, not a single member of Council has accepted the terms of the swap. A few have expressed reasons they do not wish to participate, such as bedbugs and concern for the safety of their children. Councillor Suzanne Anton said she was "interested in doing a night, but I don't think I'd be interested in spending a long time." Mayor Sullivan himself declined because, he said, he's already familiar with the issues, as he once collected welfare and spent several years in a social housing co-op and a paraplegic lodge in Vancouver's East End.
Sullivan's "Project Civil City,” proposed in November of 2006, outlines his aim to "eliminate" homelessness, the open drug market, and the incidence of aggressive panhandling, with the goal to reduce all of these by 50% by 2010. He also aims to "increase the level of public satisfaction with the City's handling of public nuisance and annoyance complaints" by 50% by 2010. These targets are aggressive and require aggressive law enforcement, which is causing the concern of many living in the DTES. “People chalk it [poverty] up to inefficiency, inactiveness,” said Chubb-Kennedy.
A research team, coordinated by COHRE, spent three years studying past and future Olympic host cities and the impact that the Games have had on housing rights. The report also addresses the housing effects of other mega-events like the FIFA World Cup, World Expos, IMF/World Bank Conferences and beauty pageants such as the Miss World and Miss Universe contests. It concludes that mega-events can cause a number of breaches in housing rights. "It is possible (and imperative) for mega-events to be organized without forcibly evicting people, without criminalizing the homeless and without rendering housing unaffordable," said Du Plessis. COHRE calls on affected communities and support organizations to closely monitor these processes, and to take action to ensure that no housing rights are violated as a result of mega-events. To the women of the DTES, however, and many others, the onus for ensuring that no housing rights are violated should fall on the government, rather than groups with little or no funding who must struggle to be represented by the media.
Refusal of the terms of the house swap and Councilors’ excuses for not participating are not acceptable to the women of the DTES. "This would be a confirmation," they said, "that there is absolutely no political will to eliminate poverty."
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.