Clock is ticking for city's homeless

As the 2010 Winter Olympics draw closer, Vancouver is growing anxious at the prospect of its social problems being put in the spotlight.

A homeless man sits in the rain at his camp with the Woodwards development project in the background in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, November 20, 2008. The project, in Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside calls for a mix of up to 500 market and 200 non-market housing units (a combination of both family and singles units), with the possibility of an additional 36 accessible units. Also included in the proposal are shops and services, community amenity space, public green space, a daycare and a post-secondary education facility. 
Lyle Stafford for The National *** Local Caption ***  Vancouver05.jpg
Powered by automated translation

VANCOUVER // There is a clock, standing six metres high in the centre of Vancouver, that counts down the seconds to the 2010 Winter Olympics. It is meant to generate excitement, but many residents just grow more anxious as each moment brings the world closer to discovering their city's dark secret. In a little more than a year, this bustling metropolis of two million people will showcase its considerable charms as athletes and spectators arrive and the games are broadcast into millions of homes. But the world's gaze will also expose Vancouver's shame: a homelessness crisis that was exacerbated by an Olympics-fuelled property boom. According to the Metro Vancouver region's most recent homelessness count, at least 2,600 people sleep outdoors on any given night, while many more sleep in shelters. Organisers, who counted homeless people across the region over a 24-hour period, say the real number is actually much higher, because many people on the street seek out places where they are unlikely to be found. It is a glaring problem in a city that The Economist magazine has ranked, for the sixth year running, as the world's best place to live. But there is no easy solution to homelessness, which is actually a complex web of health, social and economic issues. Even geography plays a role - Vancouver's relatively mild climate draws homeless people from colder cities across the country. No neighbourhood symbolises and embodies that tangled mess more than the drug-addled Downtown Eastside. Canada's poorest postal code, it sits on some of Vancouver's most valuable property. While most agree that something must be done before the Olympics, few agree on much more than that. "Its development is definitely an existential moment for the city," said David Eby, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, an anti-poverty group. "The neighbourhood presents an interesting opportunity to decide how it sees itself, whether a compassionate, inclusive city or a resort city for the rich." Fearing gentrification, many activists want to keep rents down so residents can continue living there. They lobby governments to build social housing. But developers are eager to buy rundown buildings and turn them into condos and hotels. That pushes rents and property prices higher. Most people just want the area cleaned up. Elections have been won and lost on the issue, most recently 10 days ago when a left-wing coalition swept into Vancouver city council, promising to do something about the Downtown Eastside before 2010. "This simply has to change," said the mayor-elect, Gregor Robertson, in his victory speech. "The Olympics are just around the corner and the world will be on our doorstep. We are going to end homelessness in Vancouver." Then, in almost the same breath, he admitted: "The challenges we face are almost overwhelming." When Mr Robertson and his council take over on Dec 8, they will replace a government that was tossed out of office after failing to make good on many of the same promises. "If it could be solved with bricks and mortar it would have been done a long time ago," said Bob Rennie, a legendary property broker who has set North American records and made sales of up to CDN$2 billion (Dh5.8bn) a year. "It's not just poverty; it's drug-related and it's mental health-related." Mr Rennie, who local media have dubbed the "condo king", shares this view with many anti-poverty activists in the city. He agreed that stopping homelessness requires massive investment in mental health and drug addiction facilities as well as subsidised social housing. Where he differs from many activists is in his approach. Activists have been staging noisy street demonstrations, denouncing the Olympics as a colossal waste of money that should be spent on social programmes. The more radical among them have been arrested for occupying vacant buildings and vandalising symbols of the games, including the Olympic clock. "I don't know if the business people are paying attention to the picket signs," Mr Rennie said. "Let's get into the boardroom." He said government, business and community groups need to work together on developments that sell market units to pay for social housing. "He makes a nice, fat profit off that theory," said Jean Swanson, who has been an advocate on housing issues in the neighbourhood for three decades and now works with the Carnegie Community Action Project. Mr Rennie's model is Woodward's, a massive former department store that he helped transform into a market and social housing condominium complex that presold 356 units in a single day. Ms Swanson said Woodward's had driven up property prices and rents in the neighbourhood, forcing low-income residents out of their homes. She and many other activists want to keep developers out and rents low. Mr Rennie said expecting real estate prices not to rise in a neighbourhood in the heart of a rapidly expanding city was wishful thinking. But the social costs of sacrificing the Downtown Eastside to the market are too high. The answer, according to Mr Rennie, is integrating various levels of income. Mixed income communities are culturally vibrant, spawning cafes and art galleries among other businesses. "I'd like to have people with jobs walking down the street with people without jobs," he said. Judging by the rapid sales at Woodward's, plenty of Vancouver's more prosperous citizens share Mr Rennie's vision. Whether their poorer neighbours in the Downtown Eastside agree is another question. Ms Swanson said several recently opened businesses catered conspicuously to the neighbourhood's new moneyed class. They include a high-end grocery store and a boutique that specialises in canine accessories. "It's not going to help when a homeless person walks by a store that sells clothes for dogs," Ms Swanson said. "It's just throwing the exclusion right in their faces." She and other activists, businesspeople and politicians continue to trade barbs in a fierce debate that has yet to yield solutions. Meanwhile, the number of homeless keeps rising. And in the centre of Vancouver's business district, the Olympic clock continues its silent countdown.