Day four (Thursday) of the World Urban Forum in Vancouver was the day to bring it all home ” literally. I joined Jean Swanson, a long-time housing and anti-poverty activist in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, for a community tour.
The Downtown Eastside is one of those many impoverished areas in Canada that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said don’t exist in his opening speech to WUFIII on Monday. In fact, street homelessness is up by 238% from 2002 to 2005 in Vancouver. That’s not just in the Downtown Eastside, but ” like many other Canadian cities ” in growing pockets of poverty in the outer suburbs.
Homelessness, and the underlying affordable housing crisis, has been growing rapidly since the days of Brian Mulroney (Canada’s last Conservative Prime Minister but one ” there was a short reign by Kim Campbell who presided over the sinking Tory ship in 1992). Mulroney cut about $1.8 billion from Canada’s national housing budget in the decade following his election in 1984. Then, in 1993, he cancelled entirely spending on new affordable housing.
The Liberals under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin promised to restore national housing funding, but they did just the opposite when they were elected in 1993. They made further cuts, downloaded national housing programs to the provinces and territories and then privatized (or, as they said, commercialized key housing initiatives).
So, while it was a shock to many of the thousands of delegates from around the world to see so many homeless people and panhandlers in the obviously prosperous city of Vancouver, it is really no surprise.
But the real story of the Downtown Eastside is not simply misery, poverty and homelessness. It’s also about incredible hope and a number of amazing community projects. Everything from the award-winning Four Sisters Housing Co-op to the United We Can (a community recycling initiative) to the Portland Hotel supportive housing project to the safe injection site (the only one of its kind in North America) ” the Downtown Eastside shows plenty of examples of what happens when people get the resources that they need.
Private corporations have had a major presence at the World Urban Forum. As governments realize that they need to reinvest in people and communities, the private sector is standing ready to receive a share of the bounty. But there is a real danger that scarce community dollars will be diverted to private gain rather than public good.
The private sector has helped in the Downtown Eastside. Private contractors built the buildings that house the co-ops and community services, for instance. But the success was led by the community.
The towers of high-priced condominiums are beginning to crowd into the Downtown Eastside, like many other urban neighbourhoods in Canada. There is a real danger that property developers will crowd out community organizations and that, instead of ending homelessness and easing the crushing poverty of the Downtown Eastside, the poor will merely be forced out ” as they are in so many other parts of the world.