Burning wood crackled in the campfire. People huddled around it for warmth, some with blankets covering their laps. But it wasn’t a scene from a summer trip in the wild.
No marshmallows were toasting. The wood came from grocery pallets dragged in from elsewhere. Concrete rubble from the site ringed the fire. It was the first night for the Olympic homeless tent village at 58 West Hastings Street, a squat in the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Organizers of the camp couldn’t have chosen a more fitting spot. About two years ago, residents of the neighbourhood fought a bitter but losing campaign to stop Vancouver developer Concord Pacific from getting a permit to build more than 150 condo units in the area. Called Greenwich, an allusion to New York City’s hip village, the project stalled because of the recession. With the 2010 Olympics in town, the empty property is a designated parking lot for Vanoc vehicles.
“This is like gentrification central,” housing activist Wendy Pedersen told the Georgia Straight on February 15 as the tents mushroomed in the early evening.
Across the back alley is a relatively new condo building. A banner hung from one of the rear balconies, taunting the campers, read: “Build résumés not tents.”
Concord Pacific spokesperson Peter Udzenija told the Straight by phone on February 16 that the campers don’t have the permission of the company to be on the property. He quickly offered a short prepared statement from Matt Meehan, a senior vice president of Concord Pacific, and declined to comment further. The statement read: “The land is currently leased and under Vanoc’s control for the Games. The land is slated for housing. Concord Pacific is working with the city and community on programming.”
Pedersen suggested that either the city or the province could buy the property from Concord Pacific and ask the federal government to fund the construction of at least 200 social-housing units.
She estimated the value of the property at $10 million, which is half the amount that the federal government kicked in for the spectacular opening ceremonies of the Olympics.
“This is also symbolic of what really needs to happen in the Downtown Eastside,” Pedersen said. “Why should this empty lot exist here when there’s so many people living in shelters? It could have been an amazing Olympic legacy.”
The B.C. government has stated that one of its priorities is breaking the cycle of homelessness. A B.C. Housing fact sheet states that the province has either bought or leased 26 single-room-occupancy hotels in Vancouver, New Westminster, and Victoria with about 1,550 units to protect affordable-housing stock. It has also signed agreements with eight municipalities to create 1,900 new units of housing.
A statement from tent-village organizers noted that since the Olympic bid, homelessness has almost tripled in Metro Vancouver. In the Downtown Eastside, the statement added, real-estate and condominium development is outpacing social housing by a rate of three to one.
Dave Diewert, an organizer with the advocacy group Streams of Justice, indicated that many participants in the tent village plan to stay for days.
Noting that the event is supported by almost 100 organizations, Diewert told the Straight, “I think the Olympics has kind of shown the way in which priorities get bent in favour of other concerns, while the most obvious needs of people in our region are not being addressed.”
Diewert recalled that the City of Vancouver’s 2005 Homeless Action Plan identified the need to create 3,200 social-housing units. The same target was reiterated by the Inner-city Inclusive Housing Table to define a housing legacy for the Olympics when the ad hoc group released its report in 2007.
Gillian Young doesn’t belong to any organization, but the Vancouver resident came with a tent and Kaylee, her golden retriever, to spend at least a night. She doesn’t speak the language of activists and prefers to talk about love and good vibes. Young told the Straight: “If we can’t take care of our brothers and sisters, then we’re not going anywhere.”
What kind of housing legacy are Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics leaving behind?
“I don’t think the Olympics are the main issue here. The main issue is the federal government’s failure to provide necessary policies or funding to deal with homelessness across the country. Homelessness wasn’t caused by the Olympics and it’s not going to be cured by them either, unless it can embarrass our pathetic government into providing better housing policy.”
“I think the biggest legacy will come from Vanoc, along with the municipal and provincial governments, really accelerating the idea of Vancouver as an urban resort. They are pushing sales of condos and promoting gentrification, and the impact of this is going to drive more low-income people out of the city and create more of a divide between the rich and poor.”
“I think most of it [housing legacy] came prior to the Olympics. Like the 23-24 single-room-occupancy hotels the province bought in the last two years. There’s a lot of stuff in the pipeline that’s been on hold for a long time. I think because the Olympics was coming, it all got kick-started pretty quick. That’s a good thing. Otherwise, it could have been held for a long time.”
“The housing legacy will have more to do with sustainable development and the extent to which the city sees that as a statement it wants to make. The mayor is presenting us to the world as the ”˜green city’, and that will play out in the housing market as a whole host of policies directed at putting it into practice. Those things will be both expensive and define us as who we are.”