For most viewers and fans, the Olympics brought the world together in the celebration of sport. But in Vancouver, B.C., another team competed for recognition off the Olympic grid and in the streets: housing activists and poor people, galvanized by how the mega-event impacted a city with 4,000 to 5,000 homeless people. The Games triggered very public demonstrations -- including a massive protest at the opening ceremonies -- and more private efforts as the these groups worked to protect poor people's rights and housing.
For the past three years, Vancouver's street newspaper, Megaphone, covered the build-up to the Games, along with the "Olympic evictions" and other policies that criminalized the poor and homeless. Megaphone Editor Sean Condon oversaw the paper's coverage during this time, and he spoke about what happened in Vancouver, what it meant for the homeless who live there and how a little street newspaper was at the heart of it all.
[Ed. Note: This interview was originally conducted while the Olympics were in progress. Some verb tenses have been changed to reflect the passage of time.]
Why did the Games stir up so much protest among the homeless and advocacy community? Was Vancouver's situation or experience with the Games any different than other cities?
Past Olympic Games have proven to be extremely painful for homeless and low-income people. In places like Atlanta, Sydney and Salt Lake City, homelessness was essentially criminalized during the Games and hundreds of homeless people were swept off the streets so the city could be sanitized for the tourists. The Games have also, wherever they've taken place, been used as a catalyst to gentrify low-income urban neighborhoods, causing displacement and dispossession.
Vancouver already had its own negative experience with a mega-event during Expo 86. Roughly 1,000 low-income housing units were converted to upscale hotels or market housing. So there was a lot of fear and trepidation when Vancouver was awarded the Games that we could see the same thing happen again.
In many ways, things were not as bad as some predicted. We didn't see the massive sweeps, and housing advocates, through tireless protests and squats, were able to harness the Games and embarrass the provincial government into investing more money into shelters and social housing. But by and far the Olympics have hurt low-income people. Vancouver promised that no one would be made homeless because of the Olympics, and homelessness has more than doubled since the city was awarded the Games. We have seen the Games help gentrify the Downtown Eastside, which has caused a lot of the displacement that many feared.
We have also seen an increase in the criminalization of poverty. Over the past year the Vancouver police have handed out thousands of tickets to Downtown Eastside residents for minor bylaw infractions such as jaywalking, spitting and riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. Many people feel these tickets were given out as a way to change the Downtown Eastside's street culture, which can be very chaotic, for the Games. But these are tickets, between $100 and $500, that homeless and low-income people can't possibly afford to pay and we are now seeing these people being dragged to court with warrants.
Ultimately, the Olympics have brought very little benefit for homeless and low-income people on something the provincial government has spent at least $6 billion of taxpayer money on -- a two-week party that most people can't even afford to attend. That money could have been used to virtually end homelessness in Vancouver and across British Columbia and would have left a much greater legacy than any sporting event could have.
What role has your newspaper played as independent and street media?
One of the big problems we have in Vancouver is that the city's two dailies, The Vancouver Sun and The Province, are the official media sponsors of the Games. The country's biggest daily, The Globe and Mail, has owners that are official sponsors of the Games. So because of these financial connections, which are gigantic conflicts of interest, the corporate media has been doing more cheerleading than critical analysis and Canadians aren't getting the full story.
Luckily, the city has some strong independent journalism that has kept up the pressure on the Games' organizers and has forced the mainstream media to look at some stories it was ignoring. Here at Megaphone we tried to show that, unfortunately, hosting the Olympics has little to do with the actual athletes and has much more to do with the corporatization of the city. We have been able to remind our readers about the broken promises and break news about Olympic evictions and ticketing.
For people not familiar with Vancouver, tell us about the Downtown Eastside neighborhood and how it has become such a battleground in the Olympic protests.
Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is often referred to as "Canada's poorest postal code." While it is not especially dangerous, it is an extremely poor neighborhood that is suffering from a massive health epidemic. A poverty cluster-fuck, if you will. According to a United Nations report, 30 percent of the neighborhood's population suffers from HIV and [fewer than] 70 percent have Hep C. At least one-third are intravenous drug users, with countless more addicted to crack cocaine.
However, the neighborhood's spirit is very strong and benefits from a lot of amazing community activism. Because it is so dense, and so close to the city's downtown, it also attracts a lot of media and public attention.
As businesses closed and welfare failed to keep up with inflation, the neighborhood became overrun with drug abuse, homelessness and prostitution. And even though roughly 200 people were dying from overdoses every year, it took years before governments would approve a safe-injection site, which the federal government is now trying to shut down.
People down here have been through a lot of trauma. But make no mistake: They are fighters. And they understand what's at risk. There are a lot services in the neighborhood for this population, which has so many health problems. So if people are displaced and can't access these services, it could prove fatal.
We've read about "Olympic evictions." How are you defining those and how much of a problem is it?
Not long after Vancouver won [hosting] the Games, low-income buildings, or single residency occupancy hotels, started going down like dominoes. Vancouver was already going through a rather ridiculous housing boom -- with the average house selling for more than half a million dollars -- and speculation began that the Downtown Eastside would be transformed into an upscale neighborhood. So unscrupulous landowners began to take advantage and started evicting their low-income tenants or just let the building fall into disrepair, so the city would do the evicting for them.
Roughly 1,400 units of low-income housing were lost in the Downtown Eastside since 2002. However, housing activists galvanized around the evictions and began protesting and doing housing squats in empty buildings. This did help generate a lot of media attention and public sympathy and embarrassed the provincial government into buying up 24 of these low-income buildings, saving them from being gentrified or shut down. Because of the public pressure, what we are now seeing is slow conversions. Buildings are slowly changing from low-income to mid- or upper-income as new suites become available.
Do you think your coverage had an influence on the mainstream media?
The protests have certainly gotten a lot of coverage. A lot of people in Vancouver are very sympathetic to [poor people's] causes and want to support the fight to end homelessness and poverty. The activists have also been very good, organizing large numbers and getting noticed. While it's good that the mainstream media at least covers the issue here, I would say that it hasn't done a good job explaining what the issue really is about and often criticizes the activists. This has caused a lot of confusion with the public and resulted in many people turning off from the issue or actually becoming agitated by the cause.
The alternative and independent press has continued to be relentless though, and has done a great job explaining the issues and putting pressure on governments to act. This has helped keep awareness high and I believe more of the public is turning to these sources to learn about the real story.
Have the Games, in a sense, been a good thing for the homeless community and the advocacy movement in helping raise the profile of the situation in Vancouver?
It's very hard to say. On one hand, it's really positive that the Vancouver Bid Committee signed an Inner-city Inclusive Commitment Statement that made a whole series of promises to make sure that the homeless community did not suffer from the Games and in fact would see some benefits. This was the first time any host city made such a promise. And when Vancouver held a plebiscite [referendum] on the Games, these promises were used as a big selling point and helped generate a lot of support.
But ultimately, Vancouver has been left with a legacy of broken promises. Originally, the Olympic Village was supposed to be converted into one-third market housing, one-third middle income housing and one-third social housing. It then got reduced to just 20 percent social housing and the rest market housing. Now this social housing component is in jeopardy.
I feel the homeless were used by a massive corporate event that is nothing more than a real estate grab. They were swindled and exploited and they now are suffering even more.