From the Desk of Dennis Carr, Sustainable Development Editor

A two-year march against homelessness

As the crisis has grown in Vancouver, so has a citizens' movement demanding action

By Jay Black

This shelter, at First United Mission in the Downtown Eastside, is regularly filled to capacity (250) each night.
This shelter, at First United Mission in the Downtown Eastside, is regularly filled to capacity (250) each night.

If Vancouver's citizens could have looked ahead in time and seen these photographs, would they have voted six years ago to support Vancouver's bid to land the 2010 Olympics?

The photos, taken over the past two years, document the growing organized resistance to homelessness in Vancouver, and the connection drawn by protesters between the erosion of low-income housing and the approach of the 2010 Games.

In recent years, for example, Vancouver has seen an accelerating trend called 'renovictions' — landlords forcing people from their rental apartments with the excuse of needing to make fixes, and then hiking the rent so steeply that often the residents can no longer afford to remain in their homes.

We were promised differently.

In 2001, when Vancouver was still an Olympic hopeful, the Impact on Community Coalition, a local Games watchdog group, was already concerned about problems that come with large-scale events like the Olympics. Among other things, they were concerned about evictions and homelessness.

The Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation responded by crafting, with its member partners, the Inner City Inclusive Commitment Statement, which made numerous housing-related promises. It promised that that low-income rental stock would be protected, that people would not be made homeless as a result of the Games, that residents would not be involuntarily displaced, evicted or face unreasonable increases in rent due to the Games, that there would be an affordable housing legacy on which planning should begin immediately.

But the number of homeless on Vancouver's streets has continued to rise, the already inadequate supply of SRO rooms has dwindled, and renovictions continue.

According to a recent study by the Carnegie Community Action Project, only a few Downtown Eastside hotels still offer rent at less than $425 per month. The provincial shelter allowance for income assistance recipients is $375. Thus, as Vancouver city councillor Ellen Woodsworth has indicated, evictions caused by rent increases in more affluent areas have a ripple effect throughout the city.

Most observers believe that while the coming Olympics have accelerated gentrification of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the Games cannot be held entirely responsible for the current lack of affordable housing in the city. There is little doubt about this. However, real estate speculation caught on like wildfire in Vancouver prior to the global economic meltdown of late 2008 and it is unlikely it would have blazed as strongly as it did without an Olympic Games on the horizon.

While some were making millions off this trend, hundreds of citizens have been organizing, marching and speaking out against it. This photo essay documents this resistance, a citizen's movement angry at the priorities set by business and political leaders in this province who, while spending billions on a two-week Olympics fest, have not found the resources needed to permanently house those most vulnerable in our society.

October 16, 2009 — Return to cover.