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Downtown Eastside: Home of secret Games fans

February 22nd, 2010 · 3 Comments

This story was in Saturday’s Globe but for some reason isn’t on the website, so I’m posting it here, rather than linking it for now.

2010 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Free tickets are nice, but neighbourhood hopes attention will lead to increased funding from province

Rick Russell and Bill Lucas normally wouldn’t spend a sunny afternoon indoors, glued to a television set.

But the Olympics are here. Specifically, the U.S.-Norway hockey game is on, so they’ve ditched their small Downtown Eastside rooms and have come down to the nearby Salvation Army homeless shelter and drop-in centre complex to follow it on a big screen.

The day before, Mr. Lucas also watched American Lindsay Vonn ski to victory.

“I like downhill. But that course is scary,” he said, with an impish grin and a shiver as he sipped coffee in the Canadian-flag-bedecked shelter on Cordova Street.

They’re far from the only ones in the Downtown Eastside following the Games. Almost every shelter and drop-in centre has a television tuned to the Games for the mostly hockey fans. As well, hundreds of local residents are going to curling and hockey events and medal ceremonies, thanks to tickets the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee or developer Concord Pacific distributed to neighbourhood social agencies.

“The best part for me was the medal ceremonies,” said Bill Parman, a bushy-bearded 51-year-old former carpenter who went through drug rehab recently and is trying to stay clean. “It was really good that the Canadian got a silver” – referring to snowboarder Mike Robertson. “The whole place went nuts. That was awesome, the patriotism and so forth.”

Mr. Parman, who is living in a residence run by the Portland Hotel Society, also spends his days walking around enjoying the crowds on the streets, especially at Robson Square.

None of them thinks the Games are an unmixed blessing. They don’t go to the protests – in fact, they’re critical of the “hooligans” who do damage or whom they have heard are getting paid to attend rallies – but they share some of the sentiments expressed by the more moderate members.

“I don’t know how the Games are supposed to help the people down here. And everyone says we’re going to have a big bill to pay,” said Mr. Russell, a 53-year-old former labourer from Chilliwack who is now on disability because of the arthritis in his legs. He spent three months sleeping on the streets last year before he got into a small room in the Downtown Eastside. It’s small and dirty and he doesn’t get along well with other people in the building. But it’s his only choice for now.

Like almost everyone in the Downtown Eastside, he’s holding out hope that, just the way the Olympics pushed the province into creating more low-cost housing in the past couple of years, the spotlight on the neighbourhood during the Games will keep the provincial money flowing afterward.

“I think because of all the attention we got, they’re going to put in more housing. They have to have more here for people to go to. The hostels are pretty well full,” Mr. Lucas said.

But in the meantime, they and many others are prepared to enjoy the Games while they’re here. VANOC did not provide information on how many tickets were supplied overall to neighbourhood groups, but the Salvation Army got 44, the Lookout Emergency Aid Society got 140 and the Portland Hotel Society got a total of about 600 from VANOC and development company Concord Pacific.

“We went and saw the medal ceremonies with Nelly Furtado with some of our people,” said Karen O’Shannacery, the director at Lookout, where the agency asked how many people were interested in going to events and then requested that many tickets. “They came back and you could have scraped them off the ceiling.”

The Portland, with hundreds of tickets to give away, has posted sign-up sheets for the tickets at the supervised-injection site it runs, at the needle exchange in the alley next to Main and Hastings, and at its Lifeskills Centre on Cordova.

None of the tickets are for the highest-cost events, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

What will likely bother them more is what’s coming next. Downtown Eastside groups funded by Vancouver Coastal Health got a call last Friday, the day of the Games’ opening ceremonies, to warn them that a new round of budget trimming is on the horizon. There was one already last year as health regions around the province were forced to cut costs because of lower than expected provincial funding. This time, all groups were told they’ll be asked to find 5-per-cent savings in their budgets.

“I’m not sure what we’re going to do,” Ms. O’Shannacery said. “My verbal response at the time was, ‘There’s no fat here.’ “

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