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Vancouver's downtown eastside encounters "Olympic effect"

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After tussling three large guys in a Hummer for a parking spot at the bottom of Hornby, in which tempers cool after a car pulls away opening up a second spot, I discover I have no change for the meter. You’re lucky, I grumble to one of the guys, I was just about to spank you.

That would have made a lovely start to the day, he says with a disarming smile.

Although he looks expensive he doesn’t have extra change either so after I get turned away from a haughty hair salon I hoof it to the corner. A furry, graying homeless guy pleads for change as I glance in all directions except at him looking for a bank. Listen buddy, I think to myself, you’ve got more change in your groddy hat on the pavement than I do in this $250 designer bag.  

It’s a surreal Vancouver moment, one I drift through but don’t expand on after the YMCA breaks my $5 bill and I stride past the homeless guy, his hand still out. What is it in me that does not want to care about a man obviously in longer term need than myself?

It’s an attitude David Eby encounters all the time. A lawyer for Pivot Legal Society, a group that advocates for residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Eby says Vancouver, a city once known as more socially aware than other Canadian cities, is turning away from its responsibilities. He cites the proposed Carroll Street greenway, a dedicated pathway through Gastown for cruise ship tourists, as an example.

“So they can walk down this nice green pathway and not see the squalor of the Downtown Eastside.”

Eby is one of the lead authors of Pivot’s recently released report Cracks in the Foundation, Solving the housing crisis in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood . In it he says the “Olympic effect” is contributing to a potential 3,000 homeless on Vancouver streets by 2010. He says although one of the key promises during the Olympic bid process was to promote development of the Downtown Eastside without displacing its traditional residents yet improving their lifestyle, in reality the Games are having the opposite effect.

“And what we see now with three years left to go before the Games is the reality of that promise on the ground and the progress towards implementing that promise is negligible,” he said.

As with Expo 86 and Calgary’s 1988 Winter Games, low-income housing is disappearing as residential hotel owners evict tenants in order to renovate the hotels to turn them into high end condos or to attract international students with deeper pockets. In the past few months five hotels have closed, eliminating 415 rooms affordable to those living on social assistance. And the city of Vancouver can’t and doesn’t seem to want to replace the rooms.

Eby says the end result is there will be more homeless on Vancouver’s streets.

“We’re on pace for a real disaster,” he said.

Not only are homeless people more expensive to take care of in terms of social service infrastructures, Eby says having more people on the street will take its toll on tourism. “Because who wants to come to a city that’s in the middle of a homelessness crisis where people are getting panhandled all the time?”

Eby says we also need to consider the effects on the people who are displaced from the rundown buildings that they nevertheless call home.

“Hard as it is to imagine there are communities in these buildings — many people have lived here for 15, 20 years. Their friends are in these buildings, services they rely on are within walking distance — how they survive is by being in these buildings.”

Pivot’s report boils down to one recommendation: Vancouver needs more money for low-income housing. Otherwise those begging on the street may well outnumber those of us reluctant to part with change.

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