poverty olympics part 2

One may think I have a bipolar disorder when it comes to the Olympics. In one post, I am obviously critical; yet in another, I’m among the screaming throngs of drunk college students (albeit, while I was among them, I was neither drunk, nor in college). Hockey has a hypnotizing effect on Canadians, and I don’t deny I fell into its trap, happily. Here I will state my official position: I hold no grudge against the athletes or the sports and therefore I have no beef with the actual Olympics per say; however, I do hold a grudge against my city, and against the gross amount of money spent towards frivolous things. Vancouver paraded around as the Greatest City on Earth, while BC itself has been boasting for years as the Best Place on Earth – I disagree, officially. How can the Greatest City on Earth be home to the poorest postal code in canada (the downtown eastside), the highest rate of child poverty in canada, the most expensive rent / real estate, mediocre minimum wage (most provinces have moved to $10/hr), and gentrification spreading like a virus?

I have been volunteering in the Downtown Eastside since I was 17. I have seen past the ragged clothes and cardboard signs, past the begging and the ranting – I have seen people. Don’t get me wrong – I am still learning and often forget. But I have had glimpses. The homeless of Vancouver – or anywhere – are people. And Vancouver, and its citizens, seem to forget that. How easy it is to brush their beggings off one’s shoulders and immediately surmise that the man sitting on the curb is a junkie, who only wants money for drugs, who did this to himself. Get a job, eh. How easy it is to carry on with life, dismissing human beings who are crying, and dying, for a way out. This mentality isn’t just limited to walking by street folks with our eyes looking at our shoes, or straight ahead, or anywhere but at the person with their hand out to us – it’s the same mentality that allows us to change the channel when World Vision or CCF starts showing us images of starving children; it the same mentality that lets us read the newspaper without feeling a thing.

Pascal wrote: We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us from seeing it. This is part of his book Pensees, and part of the section of “diversions”; that is, we distract ourselves from reality because, well, reality sucks. Reality includes death, war, pain, poverty and struggle, to name a few. We distract ourselves with any number of things: our work, our own meager little lives, our relationships, our judgments, or even petty things like television or the pursuit of money. One distraction after another is “putting something in front of us to stop us from seeing [life].”

So, with this in mind, I looked at the Olympics and only saw poor, homeless, and minority peoples being swept under a rug, covered up, and cast aside for the sake of presenting our city as “the best.” And then I saw millions of Vancouver citizen being okay with it. And then thousands and thousands of tourists coming and going as the please, completely ignorant to the toll their happiness was costing the poor of our city. Whether you agree or disagree, this is simply what I saw.

Ergo, I simply couldn’t cheer on Vancouver, because I am not proud of Vancouver. Vancouver is a wonderful city, it’s my home and I love it, but it could be so much better. I want to see a city that cares, equally, about all its citizens. I want to see a city that solves its problems ethically, and not simply with money in mind. I want to see a city that has compassion and heart. What I currently see is a an apathetic city that works to serve its rich.

– 900 million dollars spent on boosting police forces.

– 6 to 7 billion dollar deficit (still unknown)

– “assistance to shelter act” – allowing police to forcibly move homeless people off the streets.

– Canada is the only G8 member without a National Housing Strategy

– the Downtown Eastside is the poorest region in all of Canada

– Overall, Vancouver’s rich have increased their wealth by 45%, while Vancouver’s poor have descrease their wealth by 70% in the last 5 years.

– Homelessness has increased greatly, while available Low-Income Housing has decreased greatly.

People argue “Get A Job!” but consider this: let’s say you are on the streets. Maybe you ran away from home, maybe you never had a real home (foster care, etc), maybe you were abused (80% or more of female street workers suffered child abuse). Maybe you did it to yourself, but now you are stuck. Your clothes are disgusting, dirty, and damp. Your hair is shaggy, filthy and greasy. You most likely struggle with an addiction that stares you in the face everyday.  You are most like First Nations (statistics, again). You want out (more than 90% of street people are desperate to get out of their current situation). A pedestrian walking by you spits on you and tells you to get a job when you reach your hand out. You have no dignity,  no hope, and no support. This is the point where most people just give up: why bother? Your life apparently means nothing, and isn’t worth fixing – this is the message told to you everyday as people walk by you and ignore you, as well as the message you receive from a Government that not only doesn’t help, but actually makes it harder for you to break your cycle by closing down homeless shelters and allowing police to give you tickets for loitering, begging, binning or jaywalking. How are you supposed to pay these tickets? Still – let’s say  you are determined to get a job and get out. Where will you get new clothes? You will need clean, work-appropriate clothes for an interview; however, the government has been shutting down the types of places that might help you with this. Even if you do manage to get your hands on a set of clothes, and by a miracle, they actually fit and look appropriate for work. Now you need a resume. Where will you print a resume? Maybe you don’t even know what a resume looks like anymore. Who will help you type it? Moreover, what on earth will you put on it when you haven’t had work in months or years? How will you explain your lack of an address? Again, places that might be able to help you with this are vanishing. Let’s say there is another miracle and you manage to type and print a resume, and being handing them out. Let’s say you even get a job at a minimum wage job. When you fill out the paperwork, what will you write for SIN number, address, phone number and references? Maybe you are very lucky and you still had proper ID and a SIN number from your old life (although most people on the street don’t) and you lie about the address, and they don’t check. So you actually go to work – how amazing! But what about after your shift? You are on a list nearly 10,000 people long to await low-income housing, and it doesn’t look good. After work you line-up for short-term shelter, but tonight you don’t get in. Once again, you must sleep on the streets. How will you keep your work clothes clean? How will you wash your hair or shave, so that tomorrow for work, you still look appropriate? Without a home, and by home I mean a single room full of cockroaches and one bathroom shared by twenty men, how will you maintain this act? If only the government would open more homes, this fantasy might be real for you. Alas, they spent all their money on hosting the Olympics. Maybe in ten years.

so perhaps we ought to have compassion on our brothers and sisters who roam the streets. perhaps its not as easy as it looks? perhaps we do not understand – myself included. perhaps we should not judge. I am not saying you should dish out every cent in your pocket to the first homeless person you cross – I am not naive to the fact that many will take the money and purchase their drug of choice. So what can you do? Urge the government to provide more housing, mostly. Volunteer at the countless missions downtown, or volunteer your particular skill (for example, I write for free for a street paper). Buy someone a physical lunch or drink (chocolate milk is a HUGE hit – protein and sugar!). The main thing you can do is remove distractions, see reality, and CARE. If you care, everything else flows from that.

good links for more info (because really, what do I know?)

The Real News: Video (particularly informative)

2010 Media co-op (all sort of articles)

The Tyee – “What’s Driving the Homeless Protesters”

Megaphone (a street paper)

Yahoo News Article

my rant was inspired by this photo I snagged while roaming through the tourists downtown. Just when I was feeling a glimmer of olympic pride, I saw this man and my heart sunk. I cannot be proud of my city when this is a common site. Note the slogan in the background.

and, from another angle, I note the irony of the flag of the country that should be stopping this.

since this has been a particularly long post, I will leave it at that. I will post the rest of my shots from the DTES shortly.

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