Vancouver's Olympic Challenge
City Faces Pressure to Fulfill Social Pledges That Helped It Win 2010 Winter Games
VANCOUVER -- Rob Skish is looking forward to the 2010 Winter Olympics. A "binner" who plumbs garbage containers to fill his shopping cart with food for his stomach and cans for the recycler, Skish figures that when the Olympic crowds come to town, the pickings in the bins will be good.
"They'll be full," said Skish, 40. "But there will be a lot more people picking. They will come from all over the world."
Skish's prediction is the stuff of bad dreams for Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan.
When the Winter Olympics open in Vancouver, visitors will find one of the most alluring cities in North America, a green and vibrant port to Asia brimming with diversity, skyscrapers and West Coast cool. But if they take a wrong turn, they will enter Downtown Eastside, a 16-block area teeming with drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes and panhandlers.
The side alleys are open markets for crack cocaine and crystal methamphetamine. The streets reek of urine. Rates of AIDS and hepatitis C are at Third World levels. Those who don't have rooms in some shabby flophouse sleep on the pavement. A U.N. report last month called the area "the trouble in paradise."
To win the Games, Vancouver and the provincial and federal governments made some of the boldest promises of any Olympic bid. They promised to add 800 new housing units a year for four years. They promised to cut homelessness and to ensure that people living on welfare and disability checks aren't ousted from their hotels for higher-paying guests.
The city had already seen that happen once. Thousands of low-income residents were dislocated for the 1986 world's fair, Expo 86. Olaf Solheim, an 88-year-old former logger with a long white beard, starved to death, disoriented and confused, after being evicted from his home of more than 40 years at the Patricia Hotel in Downtown Eastside. A welfare housing block is now named after him.
"I believe the Downtown Eastside will be the legacy of this Olympics. It will be a lot different," the mayor said in an interview at City Hall. "We want every investment we make to leave a legacy that is needed by the city."
Such promises helped swing a 2003 referendum that threatened to scuttle Vancouver's Olympic bid. Opponents of the Games argued that the money should be spent on social programs, not a two-week party. Before the vote, the city, provincial and federal governments appeased skeptics by agreeing to ambitious housing and social goals to leave the city a better place.
The pledges also helped sway the International Olympic Committee, smarting from examples such as Atlanta, where vagrants were bused out of town, and Beijing, where thousands of people reportedly have been dislocated by Olympic construction.
But now critics are saying that Vancouver's promises are turning up empty. The three governments involved conceded last month that insufficient funds have been budgeted for the social programs. It is "questionable" whether all of the promised housing will be built, a report from the governments acknowledged.
"The people of Downtown Eastside feel betrayed," said Harry Bains, a member of the provincial legislature for the minority New Democratic Party. "The promise was made to the world that we will protect these people, so that everyone benefits from the Olympics. We should keep our commitments."
David Eby, a lawyer who works for a nonprofit legal assistance group, Pivot, said the poor would be left "waiting at the altar" unless the governments acted quickly.
"It could still go two ways," Eby said, strolling in sandals through Downtown Eastside, passing panhandlers and social workers. "The legacy could be an appalled reaction from visitors from all over the world about how we treat the poor. Or it could be a model for other Olympic cities that will raise the bar."
City and provincial officials insist they are making good progress. The argument has become a murky dispute over numbers. In April, the British Columbia housing authority bought 10 sagging, century-old rooming house-hotels that are the mainstay for the poor in the area. It plans to fix them up for people who pay $375 a month from welfare or disability checks.
Eby and others applaud those purchases, but contend that they don't create new housing. Development of industrial land into an athletes' village will leave about 250 more units of low-income housing after the Games. Critics say that's good, but note that the original promise was higher.
Mayor Sullivan said he was frustrated that the governments' efforts are getting little credit. "I have got more units in 18 months than the previous government did in three years," he said. "We set our standards pretty high. I think we will achieve a lot. I'm not saying we will achieve all the goals."
Sullivan, a quadriplegic who broke his neck skiing when he was 19, calls the Olympics a good deal for Vancouver. The city's rail line will be extended to the airport. What he calls a "highway of death," the narrow mountain road to ski town Whistler, will be widened to take traffic to the downhill events there. A huge convention center will be built in Vancouver and a sprawling community center will be created from Olympic facilities.
John Furlong, chairman of Vanoc, the Olympic organizing committee, said the goal is to create an effort that involves the entire community. He hopes to finish construction two years ahead of schedule and on budget, and he is hiring contractors from the native Indian groups known in Canada as First Nations. The project would create jobs for Downtown Eastside residents making signs and structures for the events.
The organizing committee will provide 250 units of low-income housing in Vancouver and more at Whistler, and will spend $6 million for First Nations housing, he said.
Sullivan said he is trying to deal with what is in fact a national problem. Most of the people roaming the streets in Downtown Eastside drifted there from other towns because of the tolerance, the climate and the supply of drugs from Asia, he said.
"If you are the mayor of a prairie city, you can have a policy of zero tolerance," he said. "But where do they all go? Vancouver."
In 12 years on the City Council, Sullivan said, he watched at least three big police crackdowns that brought noisy protests when the drug dealers and homeless people in Downtown Eastside retreated to other neighborhoods. "I recognize the futility of enforcement alone," he said.
Now, social agencies run programs in Vancouver that would raise eyebrows elsewhere. The provincial health department has a storefront office where addicts come to safely inject themselves with drugs. Another program gives out methadone. Another provides free sterile needles. The mayor is pushing a plan to distribute prescription pills to substitute for illegal drugs.
But his Olympic assurances are greeted with hard-learned skepticism on the grimy streets of Downtown Eastside. Many of the men who peer out from blankets on the concrete and the women who push shopping carts full of food scraps expect the worst.
"They'll just sweep us street people out of the way for the Olympics," Abraham Posey, 50, said with a shrug. He has lived in the bug-infested hotels in the neighborhood for 30 years, he said. "When it's all over, we'll be back."
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 23, 2007
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