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Opinion

2010 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony: What about Vancouver's homeless?

As long as the Olympics change locations, ill-equipped cities like Vancouver will make cosmetic preparations that only exacerbate local issues.

By Taraneh Ghajar Jerven / February 12, 2010



Vancouver, British Columbia

Vancouver residents are not cynics or zealots. But do not be surprised if there are more protesters than athletes at the Olympics Opening Ceremony. The Olympics have a history of leaving host cities in debt, and relocating the poor and homeless away from the sanitized corridors of host cities. Vancouver is no exception.

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The city initially put the public cost of hosting the Olympics at $660 million. It has exceeded that by $5 billion in unanticipated public spending, when the government bailed out the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC), which went bankrupt during the global financial turmoil.

Due to the government’s unanticipated Olympic spending, Vancouver’s most basic public programs will have to scrabble for funding in the coming years. The already neglected programs to address housing and homelessness won’t make the government’s agenda at all.

For both Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000, the solution to visible homelessness was forcibly removing citizens from tourist areas during the Games.

Vancouver’s marginalization of the lower income citizens, however, began well before 2010. The homeless population in Vancouver has doubled since the city won the bid in 2003, as residents were squeezed out of low-income housing during the Olympic real estate boom and gentrification.

Then in December 2009, British Columbia, Vancouver’s province, passed the Assistance to Shelter Act allowing police officers to use compulsion to remove the homeless from public areas. Because the law has no local precedent, the timing sparked a heated debate about the government’s policy toward the homeless during the Olympics.

The reaction was so strong that Jim Chu, the Vancouver police chief constable, made an independent statement to the press that his officers would not uphold the legislation.

Chu’s force, however, is a small portion of the Olympics security, which has cost $900 million – that’s $240 million over the estimated total public cost of Olympic preparation.

Host cities consistently anticipate that the Olympics will deliver long term positive effects that do not materialize. In light of these botched scenarios, which have significant social and fiscal costs, perhaps it’s time to lay a faulty model to rest.

As long as the Olympics change locations, ill-equipped cities with the best intentions will make cosmetic preparations that exacerbate local issues without adding any positive legacy. Developers will get richer and local governments poorer. In fact, the notoriously negative effects of hosting are referred to among economists as “the host city curse.”

In Vancouver the Olympics aggravated a housing crisis. Homelessness is so prevalent that 57 percent of local residents voted it as their priority to address when the city won the Olympic bid.

Canada, the only Group of Eight member lacking a national housing strategy, has 300,000 homeless – with disproportionately high numbers of aboriginal Canadians who have a homelessness rate 15 times greater than the rest of the population. In British Columbia there are 15,000 homeless. Downtown Vancouver contains the poorest region in all of Canada.

Vancouver’s local residential real estate market has an extremely low vacancy rate – and there is almost no low-income housing. According to TRAC, a nonprofit education center for tenants and landlords, 900,000 individuals in British Columbia are labelled “at risk” of homelessness, spending more than one third of their paychecks on rent. Should they miss a paycheck, they will be out on the streets.

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