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The million dollar question

When speaking with friends and family back east about my studies at UBC, the subject of my urban beat, the…

By Blake Sifton , in Blogs The Voiceless , on February 26, 2008

When speaking with friends and family back east about my studies at UBC, the subject of my urban beat, the Downtown Eastside, always comes up.

I make sure to tell them what I have learned about this ignored neighbourhood. I rhyme off the horrifying statistics and explain how the process of gentrification continues unabated.

They inevitably ask the million-dollar question, “If the area is that bad, and there are that many homeless people, what will happen during the Olympics?”

I tell them that no one knows, and that’s when the speculation usually begins.

The suggested solutions to VANOC’s “problem” range from likely to outlandish.

Some suggest that maybe they’ll give the homeless tickets to Victoria or put them all on a cruise ship adrift in the pacific until the games are over.

Others say that maybe they’ll just shoot them as Rudy Giuliani is often sarcastically accused of doing to New York’s homeless population.

Some ask if they’ll deploy overwhelming security, (further) criminalize poverty, and crackdown severely on panhandling and other activities that threaten to reveal this city’s dirty little secret to the world.

If you examine the track record of former Olympic hosts, this last option seems the most probable.

The Geneva based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) has written assessments of the impact of the Olympics on housing rights in the last six cities to host the games.

While every city violated civil liberties to ensure that the games ran smoothly, the assessment of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta provides the best description of the kinds of tactics that could be used in Vancouver.

Hoping to prevent the city’s large homeless population from bothering Olympic tourists, Atlanta police declared the central business district a “sanitized corridor”.

In order to enforce this security zone they mass-produced pre-printed arrest citations and used them to detain thousands.

The following information was included on the pre-printed tickets: African American, Male, Homeless. Spaces were left blank for the charge, date and arresting officer’s name.

I hope that a scenario like this does not occur in Vancouver but I have little faith that it won’t.

When the million-dollar question is asked I have never heard anyone honestly respond, “stop the conversions of the SROs, build more low-income housing, address systemic racism and tackle this very serious problem”.