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Olympics Sidelines Youth

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Issue: 69 Section: Sports Geography: West Vancouver Topics: poverty, 2010 Olympics, security, Youth

June 7, 2010

Olympics Sidelines Youth

Understanding wider impacts of the Games

by Jacqueline Kennelly

OTTAWA—The Winter Olympics have come and gone, and Vancouver is left to take stock of the lasting effects of having hosted this global mega-sporting event. As decisions are made about the fate of social housing in the Athlete’s Village, and as the last of the Red Tents are taken down, Vancouver might consider what the Olympics has meant for one of its most marginalized populations—homeless and street-involved youth.

Young people who watch the Olympics are expected to benefit from the Games, according to sociologist J.J. MacAloon in This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games. MacAloon says youth ought to relate to the athletes, who are themselves young adults, and be inspired by the example of these fine role models. Go to any Olympic host city organizing committee’s website, and you will encounter special games, educational activities, and interactive content geared directly at youth. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has recently taken its focus on youth a step further with the introduction of the Youth Olympics, whose inaugural event is to be held in Singapore in August 2010. Its stated goal is to “inspire youth around the world to embrace, embody and express the Olympic values of Excellence, Friendship and Respect.”

Vancouver is the capital city of the province with the highest child poverty rate in Canada. So, consideration might have been given to the effects the Games would have on these young people. Whatever the Olympics has meant for Canadian youth overall, the Games' effects on Vancouver’s homeless and street-involved youth are not so rosy. The Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) failed to meet approximately half the commitments outlined in their Inner-City Inclusivity Statement, according to the Interim Report Card compiled by the Impacts on Community Coalition. VANOC used these commitments to promote their bid and recruit wider support in Vancouver for hosting the Olympics. One such failure, according to the Report Card, was of VANOC’s commitment to protect inner-city housing and shelters. The Report Card points out that homelessness has more than doubled since Vancouver won the Olympic bid, and at the same time, between 1,085 and 1,580 units of low-income housing were lost in the inner city alone. The majority of housing losses occurred as a result of the transformation of Single Residence Occupancy (SRO) hotels into condominiums. According to a report by Pivot Legal Society, low-income housing loss in this period is a direct result of real estate speculation pressures generated by the Olympic Games.

A report by the Social Policy and Research Council of BC indicates BC Employment and Assistance Rates (i.e., Employment Insurance and welfare) remain far below a living income, particularly in an expensive city like Vancouver.

These factors, albeit not all related to the Olympics, combine to exacerbate homeless and street-involved youths’ difficulties surviving in Vancouver.

“You don’t know what it is to live on welfare until you’ve lived on welfare. It’s awful. Especially in BC. You can’t even live off welfare and have a place unless you have housing [provided], which is impossible,” said Sarah*, a young woman living in a youth homeless shelter in Vancouver.

The irony, of course, is that the Olympics are touted—especially at the bidding stage—as an event that will make things better for the inhabitants of host cities.

But Helen Lenskyj, in her book Olympic Industry Resistance, points out that Olympic host cities face a multitude of negative effects, particularly in relation to affordable housing and homelessness. Sara pointed out, “Not only are they making condos to try and shove their problem under the carpet but they’re deciding that oh, if they make some place and get [homeless people] off the street [the city will] look good... But actually [now that] the Olympics is done those places [temporary shelters] are coming down and new buildings, which people are going to pay for, are coming up and the homeless people are right back where they were.”

The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions published an extensive report in 2007 about housing and the Olympics. Their research suggests that Olympic Games “are often catalysts for redevelopment entailing massive displacements and reductions in low cost and social housing stock.” They also note the common use of legislation “to allow for speedy expropriations of property or to criminalize homelessness.”

In BC, the provincial government passed a controversial Assistance to Shelter Act less than three months before the Vancouver Olympic Games began. The act gave the police new powers to move homeless people off the streets and into shelters. Advocates for homeless people dubbed the law the “Olympic kidnapping act.”

Such policies are consistent with global efforts to market cities to tourists and potential investors, according to E.J. McCann’s 2009 article, “City Marketing.” These strategies include “the constant policing and management of the city itself, so that its public spaces—and even its people—or at least those who are on public view in spaces likely to be traversed by tourists or business people—correspond to and enhance the brand.”

This happened with particular intensity—according to a number of homeless and street-involved youth who witnessed police activity—during the year leading up to the Games. In particular, homeless youth found themselves increasingly moved from downtown tourist streets such as Granville or Robson.

“There are certain neighbourhoods [the police] won't let you in, but in the West End, if they find you in one place? They'll be checking it every night after that for about a month,” said Curtis, a young Aboriginal man living in a youth homeless shelter. The Downtown East Side—an area notorious for open drug use, sex trade work and poverty— was the only neighbourhood these young people felt was free from police harassment in the year before the Olympics.

“They don't care if you're down there. They'll come up to me while I've been using drugs and they're like, we don't care that you're using. Just stay out of sight,” said Jennifer, a formerly homeless woman who continues to attend the youth drop-ins at her local homeless shelter.

The pressure to get off downtown streets meant that some youth had trouble accessing the services clustered around the West end of the city, including youth shelters such as Covenant House and Directions. It also meant they were pushed into areas of the city where they faced increased risks of drug involvement or crime.

“The East Side is the worst because you can get caught up in anything out there. We don't want to do that. That's why a lot of us come out to this area,” said Michael, a street-involved youth currently living in a shelter in the West End.

During the Games themselves, scrutiny by police seemed to ease. “The worst of the bad effects didn’t materialize,” noted Am Johal of the Impacts on Community Coalition (IOCC), “largely because of civil society pressure on government.” Pressure tactics included volunteer training offered by Pivot Legal Society and the BC Civil Liberties Association for Vancouver residents to monitor police, and an ongoing campaign against Olympic-induced displacement by the Carnegie Community Action Project.

Despite these efforts, homeless and street-involved youth still encountered the police during the Olympics, particularly if the young people were perceived to be out of place. Justine, a young Aboriginal woman who had recently secured social housing in Vancouver’s affluent West end, relayed a conversation she had with police during the Games: “[I was] just walking down the street, like [the police said] ‘You don’t look like you’re from around here.’ And it’s like, ‘I just live down the street actually.’ And they’re like, ‘Are you sure, what’s your name, what’s your address?’ and like interrogating me when I walk down the street just because you don’t look like you belong in the area.”

Homeless and street-involved youth also noticed police treated other young people differently during the Games, particularly if they were obviously Olympic revellers. “If you’re wearing Canada gear, you can be as hammered as you want and the cops won’t bother you, as long as you’re going, ‘Go, Canada!’” said Jason, a young man currently housed in Vancouver’s east side. This injustice rankled Jason and other youth, particularly given that they experience regular police harassment for relatively minor infringements.

As cities gear up for future Olympic Games—London 2012, Sochi 2014, Rio 2016—and as Toronto begins to prepare in earnest for the arrival of another mega-sporting event (the 2015 PanAm Games), it will be important to assess the effects on people from all walks of life, including low-income and homeless youth. These young people live in a city in a way most people don’t. Athletes, tourists, international media, and police and security forces will be stomping through the bedrooms and living rooms of street-involved and homeless youth when they descend on a host city. If the Olympics are marketed as the purview of the young, then young people ought to be the true beneficiaries, rather than the victims, of the Games.

*All names used in this story are pseudonyms.

Jackie Kennelly is an assistant professor at Carleton University in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, currently studying the effects of the Olympics in Vancouver and London on low-income young people.

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