Nearly a year ago, Vancouver’s athlete’s village was a hub of activity as hundreds of international competitors convened at the brand new building for the duration of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Meanwhile, a different crowd was gathered at 59 West Hastings Street, where Downtown Eastside residents and housing advocates set up a tent village to draw attention to homelessness in the city.
Later this month, housing activists are planning a similar protest, but this time instead of Hastings Street, they intend to set up their tents at Olympic Village.
According to Vancouver Action, one of the groups organizing this year’s tent city, the protest will highlight concerns including a need for secure and affordable housing.
“The point of contrasting a tent city with empty units is bringing out into the open that contrast in a daring way, so it is kind of pushing something to the front of the public’s attention,” said VanAct organizer Tristan Markle. “One of the principles is that low-income folks should be accepted everywhere.”
In addition to the tent city being planned for February 26, a housing march is also being organized for this Saturday, February 12 at noon, which will take place in the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown and the Olympic Village.
Markle said another major concern advocacy groups will be highlighting as part of the events is what they say are harmful effects caused by gentrification in the Downtown Eastside, including the displacement of some low-income residents.
The City of Vancouver recently released an update on housing and homelessness, in which they said the city was 450 supportive housing units short of ending street homelessness by the year 2015.
Harold Lavender, a Chinatown resident and board member of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council, said that number of units doesn’t reflect the broader need for non-market housing in the community.
“There are people who need supportive housing and any steps to actually get those units built can be positive, but that’s not all the people who need subsidized housing – that’s a way bigger figure,” he said.
The neighbourhood council has launched a campaign calling on the city to secure 10 sites around the Downtown Eastside for social housing.
“Part of the reason we’re concerned is because if these sites aren’t purchased, the land values could increase and it could become much more expensive and difficult to acquire the land at a future date,” said Lavender.
He said there are currently about 5,000 people living in the city’s single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs), where low-income tenants face increasing rents. According to the city’s February 1 housing update, less than 35 percent of SRO rooms rent at the welfare shelter assistance rate of $375 a month.
“It’s becoming incredibly difficult for anybody on welfare to find anywhere to live in this city,” said Lavender.
Markle acknowledged that over recent weeks, there have been what he calls “partial but important victories” for housing advocates.
The city shelved a controversial plan last month to allow towers in certain areas of the Downtown Eastside, and announced plans for a community planning process that will involve local residents.
But by setting up tents around what many have described as a ghost town at the former athlete’s village, activists plan to highlight what they say are broken promises to provide a certain portion of social housing at the site.
While two-thirds of the complex was initially slated to be designated as affordable housing, the number of units reserved for social housing has since dropped to 126, while many of the market units remain unsold.
Lavender said he’ll be supporting the tent city plans at the end of the month.
“I think it’s really important to draw the attention to the fact that there’s a big homeless crisis in this city,” he said. “We don’t think shelters are any kind of long-time answer.”
The tent city set up during last year’s Olympics, which Markle noted was driven by organizers like the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre Power of Women Group, reached about 150 people at its peak.
You can follow Yolande Cole on Twitter at twitter.com/yolandecole.