Olympic winners and losers
Hosting the Olympics is a costly business that exposes a city’s seamy side - as Vancouver and London are finding out
Colin Horgan guardian.co.uk, Friday 23 January 2009 17.00 GMT
There is a clock in downtown Vancouver that counts down the days until the winter Olympics come to the city in February 2010.
The corner on which it sits (Hornby and West Georgia) is shared with the Vancouver Art Gallery to the east and the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver to the west – the latter housing, among other high-end boutiques, a Louis Vuitton outlet.
It’s a nice bit of real estate, and when the clock finally reaches zero, Vancouver hopes the world will recognise the city for its physical beauty and its friendly, cosmopolitan atmosphere.
However, it is a countdown to something else: the day the world will be exposed to Vancouver’s shocking homeless problem.
Vancouver is already benefiting from the upcoming Olympics.
Property values downtown and in nearby areas rose after the announcement that the city would be the host, and a much-needed upgrade to the sea-to-sky highway between Vancouver and Whistler finally began in earnest.
Added to this, Vancouver can expect millions of dollars to pour in during the winter of 2010, and the city will feel the cash influx from those who will visit after seeing it on television.
Similarly, London hopes that its own games in 2012 will be profitable, and at this rate they will have to be. And like Vancouver, London’s athletes’ village site is the epicentre of the belief that the Olympics will prove an opportunity to revive a downtrodden area. But the problems keep piling up in both cities.
London’s Olympic organisers now realise that the cost of its games is likely to be many times what was predicted. This week, the British government admitted that it would have to fork out an extra £461m for London’s athletes’ village, thanks to a loss of corporate revenue. The number of flats that were to be made available for purchase has collapsed from 3,000 to just 1,000, and even those seem unlikely to sell afterwards. For its part, the city of Vancouver has already loaned the developer of its athletes’ village C$100m (£57m) to ensure its completion on time, but the cost has recently risen dramatically, and the city may now be on the hook for anywhere between C$500m and C$800m.
While both cities buckle down for the inevitable financial toll of their respective games, the hope of urban regeneration is continually in doubt. In Vancouver, that doubt lingers – as it usually does – over the city’s Eastside, and its residents will be the first to suffer.
The Eastside is Vancouver’s not-so-secret secret. Many Canadians recognise the street name East Hastings as synonymous with an area of drug addiction, prostitution, homelessness and crime. Vancouver’s coastal setting and milder climate have been major contributors to the city becoming the end of the line for many, and slowly the Eastside has become one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada. It is a shock to the few visitors who see it, and even to those who live in Vancouver.
Entering the Eastside at any time is eye-opening, with some intersections populated only by the homeless or prostitutes, with an occasional police car cruising past. During the day, especially in the summer, the sidewalks reek of urine and are littered with used needles. It is not uncommon to witness addicts shooting up heroin in alleyways, or drugs being dealt openly on the street. In the winter, the homeless freeze. This past December, a homeless woman burnt herself to death when she lit a fire in a shopping cart for warmth and fell asleep next to it. It is truly another world. Every large city has homeless people, but it is hard to find an area like the Eastside – a ghetto that would seem inconceivable in a city like Vancouver or in a country like Canada.
For many Canadians, the problems of the Eastside were highlighted six years ago when Robert Pickton was charged with the murder of 27 Eastside prostitutes who had disappeared over many years, their remains buried at his pig farm outside the city. That Pickton continued his murders for so long suggests that though their absence might have been noted, few actually cared for the fate of these women. It is an extreme example, but one that could only have occurred in such a destitute part of the country.
The Eastside is of serious concern to many, and for years activist groups, community organisers and private citizens have worked tirelessly to rid it of its problems. Recently, a free heroin injection site opened in an attempt to offer a clean environment for drug users and to curb the crime associated with the addiction. After much controversy, the site has claimed moderate success, and is gradually weaning some addicts into rehab. The idea that a clinic would hand out free heroin to addicts was initially shocking to many Canadians, but eventually, as with many issues in the Eastside, it has been forgotten. For now.
Vancouver is approaching a turning point. The opening, closing and medal ceremonies for the winter Olympics will be held at BC Place, a stadium on the edge of downtown, only blocks from the Eastside. The homeless will be noticed there and all over the city. It is impossible to pass through the very walkable downtown without being asked for change or seeing the poor kneeling on street corners – the social issues hardly being confined to the roughly fifteen-square blocks of the Eastside. The city of Vancouver will not be able to cure all the addicts, house all the homeless or right all the wrongs of the Eastside by the time February 2010 rolls around. However, the city was gifted with a benchmark date that it can work towards in order to have new social programmes in place to aid its poorest citizens.
In conjunction with Bell Canada, Vancouver’s Olympic Organising Committee (Vanoc) has promised $2m to regenerate the Eastside. In addition, the Vancouver Agreement – a joint funding programme from the city, the province of British Columbia and the federal government of Canada – has committed C$2.7m to building a new supportive-housing, 87-unit block downtown for those currently living in Eastside hotels. However, funds for prostitution and methamphetamine prevention programmes total roughly only C$250,000 combined. Next to the hundreds of millions for the Olympic village site, it seems paltry.
The city of Vancouver boasts that the Olympic sites and athletes’ village, designed to high green standards just south of downtown in False Creek, will be the future home of thousands of Vancouverites. However, only 250 of these 1,100 units will be designated as affordable housing. Some citizens have recently resorted to hunger strikes in order to highlight the issue, claiming that the money allotted for things like Olympic security could be better used on low-income housing and similar programmes. The hope is that it is not too late for the Olympics to spur public sympathy.
Throwing money at the Eastside won’t solve its problems. Funding will certainly help rehabilitation and homeless shelters, but largely, the Eastside will continue to be ignored until enough pressure builds. This may finally come from international scrutiny, for what does the Eastside say of Vancouver or for that matter, the rest of the country?
It is very easy to come to Vancouver and not visit the Eastside. In fact, many are advised against crossing the threshold East of Cambie Street and venturing into the ragged underbelly of the city. From the vantage point of downtown, the city’s homeless problem seems normal, and in some neighbourhoods it all but disappears. Vancouver prides itself on its image as one of the best cities in the world, but for many the reality of life here is very different.
When it is completed, the northern face of the athletes’ village will stare across False Creek at Vancouver’s Eastside, as a constant reminder of its real cost. Taxpayers will suffer from the cost of our Olympics, but in Vancouver’s Eastside, that hit will be all the harder to bear. The announcement of the Olympics should have ushered in a renewed dedication to aiding the Eastside. For all intents it has not, and the city, the country and countless individuals will suffer because of it.