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Housing march and tent city keeps focus on the real message: homelessness

February 15th, 2010 · 10 Comments

No black hoodies or newsbox-stand throwing today.

Instead, activists who organized the rally and march in the Downtown Eastside today did a lot of smart things.

1. They held the rally at Pigeon Park, where there are lots of local people easily available for news crews to interview, people who were happy to talk about everything they think is wrong in the neighbourhood.

2. They had almost exclusively older women, many of them native, giving the speeches at the opening rally, like Elaine Durocher and Stella August. Plus more older native women in button blankets leading the march through the streets afterwards.

3. They had a group of people singing We Shall Overcome, with some harmonizing thrown in, as part of the opening activities — something that evoked old-time civil liberties’ marches and I’m sure brought tears to a few eyes.

4. They emphasized they wanted a peaceful protest.

5. After marching around the block, they set up a tent city on the vacant site owned by Concord Pacific — a move that it’s hard for anyone to complain about without irony seeping in, since vacant Concord land near the waterfront is currently covered with temporary tents for various Olympics festivities.

6. They kept the message on housing and homelessness, with only a few references to the “criminalization of the homeless” — no yelling that police are pigs.

7. The rally ended up drawing a broad range of people, both from the DTES and elsewhere, though I would venture to say very few actual homeless people. I and many others noted that almost everyone we spoke to at the rally, when asked where they lived, either acknowledged that they live in one of the social housing buildings in the Downtown Eastside or they refused to say where in the DTES they live, which pretty much sent the same message. But that’s okay — those who have housing and even jobs are the ones who have the energy to protest about injustice. This isn’t so different from anywhere else.

Now it will be interesting to see what happens next: Will police and Concord just let the Tent City stay for the duration of the Games? Who among the activist community is going to police that tent city? Although not many homeless were at the march, undoubtedly some will show up just because of the communal spirit. But we’ve seen in the past how tent cities and squats can get pretty nasty — only but the blindest social activist recognizes that there are problems with the crime and disorder that can spring up around them.

It will also be interesting to see whether media outlets, drawn down by the tent city, will get educated about the issue. I dropped by the Downtown Eastside Connect centre at Woodward’s, the province-city-housing group media centre half a block from the new tent city, where NBC had just discovered homelessness issues and was scrambling to produce a story with the staff at the centre scrambling to give them something a different story line than “Vancouver has abandoned its homeless on the streets.”

It sure would be great if someone could get into some of the complexities of this story, which is so much deeper than it appears at first glance.

As I said above, the irony is that many of the people at the rally live in social housing. The banner that was unfurled for media to look at on Hastings Street (“Homes Now: Tent to End Homlessness, Gentrification, Criminalization of Poverty”) hangs from Tellier Tower, one of the oldest social-housing projects in the neighbourhood. The Downtown Eastside, I would guess, likely has the densest concentration of social housing of anywhere in Canada, now that Regent Park has been torn down, especially since the province bought up almost two dozen residential hotels in the last couple of years.

At the same time, there was a real failure of will — first by the federal government in 1984, then by the B.C. Liberal government in 2001 — when it came to housing the poorest and most marginal. The last two years has brought a sea change in the province, but where is the federal government? I don’t understand why the protesters aren’t marching on the Canada pavilion. Yes, I know some emphasize the need for a “national housing strategy” but they don’t apply anything like the same vitriol to the feds that they do to the province.

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  • Stephanie

    The action is being organized by the Power of Women group from the DTES Women’s Centre. Elaine Durocher and Stella August are both members. Your language implies that the speakers and march leaders were placed there by the organizers; actually, they *are* the organizers.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    Visions of Rosa Parks… Good on them, Frances, and good on you for posting this.

    “The last two years has brought a sea change in the province”

    I am not at all sure that we have seen the “tide that will lift all boats” manifest itself quite yet. The most troubling signs from the Ministry—part of a provincial government lead by a former Mayor of the City of Vancouver—are actions coming from Broadway and Fraser, in Mount Pleasant, a neighbourhood far removed from the so-called Downtown Eastside (DTES).

    In Mount Pleasant, social housing is being proposed in a tower.

    Add to that our Council’s recent Heritage Area Heights Review—proposing building towers as panacea for economic renewal, while turning a back to historically significant urban fabric—and this looks very much like “Business as Usual”.

    What is clearly needed is what has not been seen in the 40 years that I have been here: a massive investment by the City and its senior government partners aimed at turning the fate of these blighted neighbourhoods around.

    Not “gentrification” but just plain, common sense.

    There is a “pillar” missing in the 4-Pillar Harm Reduction Strategy. It is bringing a sense of economic functioning to the five neighbourhoods that together comprise the Cradle of our City.

    No functioning economy, no recovery, no reality check.

  • landlord

    Lewis : there is a non-profit dedicated to economic development in DTES. Check out BOB, building Opportunities for Business Inner-City Society ( Funding comes from Western Economic Development (federal) and Bell (Olympics-related). As things stand funding ends when the Games do.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    I think the real culprit is City Policy, landlord.

    The Roundtable Report met with a chorus of “this is already city policy”. However, when you read the DTES Housing Plan it is clear that ‘city policy’ is to erect protectionist walls around the neighbourhoods, and not allow any growth in (economic stimulus). When the floodgates are opened, we get Woodwards and 5.0 FSR.

    Every year as the slide becomes ever steeper it becomes more and more difficult to understand exactly what is being ‘protected’.

  • landlord

    City of Vancouver has no economic development policy. It had a department during the 80’s but this has devolved into lip service through its Commission. The Commission is a talk shop with no budget, no programs and no input to the policy process.
    Typical blinkered Statist perspective : all problems are addressed by throwing tax revenue at symptoms, e.g. deal with homelessness by building public housing instead of finding jobs for people so they can pay their own rent; deal with poverty by increasing welfare rates for crazy people with drug habits instead of treating their medical problems; deal with illness through surgery and medication instead of prevention; and so on.
    Sadly this approach will not survive deficits at all three levels of government. Once the Games are gone the focus will be on deficit reduction, not spending on the “safety net”.
    Even so-called “progressives” like Vision are not about to run for election on a platform of raising taxes to pay off the debts incurred through crazy decisions like fighting foreign wars, staging pointless sports festivals, subsidies to tar sands, stimulus spending on highways and bailing out doomed industries.

  • Thanqu landlord . . . at last we cut to the chase . .

  • Not Running for Mayor

    If you beleive not having aneconomic development policy is bad, wait to see the one that is about to be introduced. I’d rather have none than have a bad one.
    Although my alias allowes me some leeway I can’t get into too many details as it would give me away and defeat the purpose of the alias.
    What you will see released before the end of the games in partnership with the province is an economic development policy that will do significant harm to the province over the long term and consists of nothing but business tax subsidies. The biggest carrot will consist of a lowered corporate tax rate for any business that relocates, putting our home breed businesses at a disadvantage over the short term.

  • MB

    I think some perspective is required. The situation in the DTES has gotten so out of hand that it’s obvious the solution will have to be polytonal, to use a word from music.

    Four Pillars evolved into Two and a Half Pillars primarily because of a lack of jurisdictional overlap. Instead, we have jurisdictional vacuum.

    I don’t blame the city, because they try as they will to fill the vacuum when the feds pigheadedly try to overturn every attempt treat addiction as a healthcare issue, as Insite does, and as NAOMI did. The matter is now before the supreme court of Canada.

    Housing the homeless alone without extensive, long-term on-site treatment for addiction and mental illness will be an incomplete (and I believe largely unsuccessful) project. The goal is to recognize that these are potentially productive members of society who have fallen through the gaping holes left by previous politicians under all party monikers, including the NDP.

    In my opinion, this should be the Number One action. Number Two could be a grassroots neighbourhood revitalization, much as Lewis describes. But #2 will be unsuccessful if #1 isn’t concurrently realized and people continue to shoot up with rainbow-hued puddle water leaking from alley dumpsters, or die in shopping cart bonfires, or red tents are still necessary to get a message across. In a perfect world a program taking both courses of action on behalf of three levels of government will be designed.

    Dream on, eh?

    The current crop of feds prefer to bail out GM, and Gordo prefers to build long term Olympic and Gateway Project debt. Both are ideologically biased to cut back healthcare and housing to pay down debt. Just wait and see.

    To me practising tough guy neocon economics (i.e. cut backs to social services while increasing funds to the military or megaprojects) is a sign of weakness and leads to a less resilient society. There are huge challenges just ahead with housing and healthcare being only a part of them.

    Leadership requires the boldness to reorient an existing budget framework toward strengthening society as a whole, not just rewarding a few lobbying components, and possible actions like raising the GST back to 7% or higher as a debt reduction strategy AND to finance a national housing and healthcare program in our poorest neighbourghoods needs to be considered. This may actually lower the costs to our healthcare system in the long run.

    Those who complain about taxes being raised should first consider that we’re talking about the equivalent of a handful of lattes a month for the average adult living in our extraordinarily wealthy society.

    (Would the anti-tax crowd please focus once in your lives on our public road system, one of the most draining elements on public tax draws in existence? Reorienting even 3% or 4% of the annual car subsidy would do wonders for housing, healthcare, transit AND lowering public debt.)

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    “The goal is to recognize that these are potentially productive members of society who have fallen through the gaping holes left by previous politicians under all party monikers, including the NDP… In my opinion, this should be the Number One action. Number Two could be a grassroots neighbourhood revitalization, much as Lewis describes. But #2 will be unsuccessful if #1 isn’t concurrently realized”

    MB …we are on the same page. There are two classic issues in planning:

    (1) Getting all the ducks together; and

    (2) Getting them all in a row, identifying which comes first and which comes next, etc.

    However, in the DTES some of the “ducks” are being ruled out a priori.

    When I am at my best behaviour, I call that “old paradigm planning”.