Tents dot the landscape of Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park, a Downtown Eastside (DTES) green space on the edge of ground zero in Canada’s poorest and most marginalized neighborhood. Drug addicts, the mentally and/or physically disabled, the working poor and underage runaways managing to fly beneath police radar share the dry grass as a marginally safer alternative to braving the violence on city streets and in the limited space in homeless shelters. A few short blocks to the west, developer Concord Pacific prepares to break ground on their latest condominium offering, inviting prospective buyers to consider the Greenwich Project, “a collection of modern flats surrounding the lush greenery of two interior courtyards”. Such is this latest scene of incongruity in a neighborhood under siege by the gentrification machine known as the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

If dodge ball or hot potato were Olympic sports, local and provincial politicians, housing activists and police would share in the medals, each group denying – to some degree understandably – responsibility for the ever-growing problem that is homelessness. To be fair, the disaster is so entrenched in systemic and societal missteps, no one can fully accept blame, nor is blame particularly useful as a means to a productive solution.

Typically, the micro has won out over the macro and the argument seems to be over whether to approve the development of more shelter beds or allow a tent city to exist in Metro Vancouver as a means to deal with growing numbers of homeless. Local activists focus their attention on developers like Concord Pacific and the City’s Development Permit Board – both easy but inappropriate targets. The City of Vancouver Parks Board bizarrely sits squarely at the centre of the Oppenheimer Park debate, merely because the tent city exists in a city park. The police hover on the perimeter, tentative, but obliged to act, nonetheless, because enforcement of Parks Board By-Laws falls into their duties if the job is too fraught with potential danger or public safety concerns for Parks’ staff to deal with. These two entities assume the role of judge, jury and executioner while the Province and City Hall sit back and hope the problem will disappear. But, like Britney Spears’ breakdown photos, it is here to stay, etched on the permanent record of our society. Mayor Sam Sullivan and his Council continue their silence, while relatively powerless Parks Board Commissioner Spencer Herbert twists in the wind with calls for more shelter beds or a real City-run tent city somewhere outside the downtown core. Where, exactly? Point Grey? Too close to the Premiere’s house and too far from the open drug market of the DTES. Whalley? Undoubtedly, Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts would mount a gigantic NIMBY campaign to keep the tents away.

Comparing shelter spaces to affordable or supportive housing is like brushing your teeth with baking soda instead of Crest – you can do it for a day or two, when nothing else is available, but it’s never intended as a permanent solution. Early this year, advocates from the DTES Women’s Centre invited the Mayor and Council to participate in a housing swap, an invitation that was largely ignored and ridiculed by bureaucrats quick to cry “that is SO not the point!”. Seeing the likes of Kim Capri, Gordon Campbell, Rich Coleman and Geoff Plant bedding down under Science World – well, it’s impossible to imagine because they would never, ever do it, not even for one night. Because if they did, they would have to change their position, or at least break their silence. Wouldn’t they?

Vancouver needs a commitment to build respectful, affordable housing, not the ongoing smoke and mirrors show where we purchase more rundown rooming houses that will never be converted over to house the currently homeless – and it needs to happen now. Prior to the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, authorities bused street vendors, buskers, homeless and other so-called undesirables out of the region – hopefully to a spa or cooking school somewhere in Tuscany, but that appears doubtful – in the weeks leading up to the Games. VANOC members expressed shock and disbelief when informed this was not possible for police to do in Canada because of a little paper called the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. VANOC officials continue to scratch their heads over that one. Why can’t we do that, again? I don’t get it. A lasting, sustainable solution to the homeless problem has to happen and it has to happen now.

Only by bringing together all the stakeholders – the homeless, the Provincial Ministries of the Attorney General, Aboriginal Relations, Health Services, Housing and Social Development, Children and Family Development, Community Development, Public Safety and Solicitor General, City Council, the Vancouver Police, and all of the DTES organizations who work so tirelessly to hold the band-aid on the profusely bleeding wound that is homelessness. The only sound politicians hear is that of money talking, and the mounting evidence showing homelessness is more of a financial burden on our province than the cost of building affordable housing may just be the linchpin needed to move this project into reality.

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