Homelessness


This holiday season, I’ve found myself overwhelmed – far more than at any time in my life I can recall – with gratitude for the life I have and the people in it. I have a wonderful, healthy family, a warm home, an interesting and stable job and few worries in these crazy economic times aside from the rising price of food, paying the bills on time and how to ride my bike in the snow. I am incredibly fortunate.

Vancouver is in the midst of a long and harsh cold snap, made worse by the dampness of the coastal air and stiff winds – both of which I hesitate to comment on knowing most Canadians will label me a wimpy West Coaster, but as a transplanted Albertan, I can tell you it feels like minus 25 in Lethbridge around here.

Vancouver has a huge homeless population, formal counts put the number at around 3500, but anecdotal estimates from people who work with the homeless and know the people out there say it could be as high as 5000. I have not been able to stop thinking of our homeless brothers and sisters this past frigid week, wondering how they’re doing, whether they are taking advantage of more shelter beds open due to the emergency measures that kick in when the mercury drops, braving the bedbugs and lack of privacy and rules to keep from freezing to death.

I am struck, once again, by the question of what I can do for them. What do they need that a single person or family could provide aside from a room and three square meals? My home is tiny, we are comfortable, but packed pretty tightly with no space left, literally not even for a sleeping bag on the floor. And I ask myself: really, would I open my home to a homeless stranger, someone with any possible combination of a mental health diagnosis, drug or alcohol addiction, criminal record? Am I a complete hypocrite? A fair weather aider of men, only moved to assist under the right conditions for someone I deem safe or worthy?

I decided to give away a warm down vest I had, a couple of years old but in excellent condition and sure to offer an extra layer of insulation to someone, even if they slept indoors at night, who might be forced to be outside all day long in this sub-zero weather. For fours days, I drove around the parts of my neighborhood I knew I would normally find the regulars, those I see on my daily trips to the grocery store, the bank, the coffee shop.

Initially, I thought I would find someone familiar to me and give it to them, my mind’s eye envisioned a man and I rationalized that giving something with high street value might put a woman at greater risk for theft or worse. This caused me deeper exploration and I felt sick that even a gift could unleash the forces of misogyny. The more I thought about who to give my vest to, the more disgusted at my unconscious mental list of qualifications I became.

I stopped trolling the Main Street area and headed to the Downtown Eastside, the area of greatest need and target of the greatest judgment. I searched the low track prostitute strolls in the early morning, knowing these women were freezing – but I found none. Adjusting my goal, I began to look for anyone who seemed needy, but I saw no one on the streets, though it was now past nine. I began to feel foolish, my little vest so pathetic, my so-called gift so insignificant and useless to deal with this far-reaching problem of poverty in our city.

I wish I had a poignant ending to share, but I don’t. Tonight, it’s going down to -12, with a wind chill of -19. and I will find some shivering soul to make use of my vest before nightfall, because they can’t all be in shelters, they’re out there, freezing. And I’ll make a plan to do more.

Note: two hours after I posted this, I heard that a homeless woman had died early this morning on the streets of Vancouver, her small makeshift shelter set alight in her attempts to maintain a small campfire to stay warm.

BC’s Provincial Finance Minister Colin Hansen announced yesterday the provincial surplus has shrunk under the constraints of the global economic crisis, but he assured British Columbians he would not be running a deficit to jump start the floundering economy.

Hansen vowed to belt-tighten, examine expenses, reduce costs and mind the store, but offered absolutely no specifics when pressed to provide examples of areas where the government would cut spending in response to predicted shrinking revenues. The Liberals have spent a reported $30 million to tell BC residents we live in the best place on earth and Hansen gave no indication this type of highly discretionary spending would end immediately under his watchful recessionary eye.

What’s the plan, Colin? Sit tight? Stay the course? Hold the line? Focus on the prize? Sounds eerily reminiscent of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first lame responses to initial indication of a widening global economic crisis back in September and Harper’s government has yet to launch a real plan to stimulate the national economy other than to offer support to the major banks’ mortgage lending.

Premier Gordon Campbell has shown virtually no leadership on the issue of the economy, indeed, he seems to be sitting dumbstruck in his office and I can only imagine the kinds of conversations he and his aides are having.

Campbell, mumbling, eyes glazed over, stares out the window, his voice barely audible: “Where’d our surplus go? Kevin? Colin? Uh, uh, where are my glasses, someone get me my glasses!!”

Kevin Falcon: “You’re wearing your glasses, Gord, remember? The ones you got from my guy? So we could look smart and edgy and less geeky?”

Campbell: “I can’t feel them on my face, I can’t see, dammit, who keeps giving me these forecasts to read? I can’t read them, they make my eyes bleed! My eyes! My eyes! Where did the billion dollars go? Colin, what the fuck?”

Colin Hansen: “Uh, it was me, Gord, I, um, thought you’d want to know so we could – I dunno – make a plan, revise the budget, something like that. I wasn’t trying to upset you – what should I tell the people?”

Campbell stares silently out the window for several long beats. Suddenly, he rummages crazily through the drawers of his desk, before pulling out a glossy, full colour brochure promoting BC.

“Tell them they live in the best place on earth! Tell them – because it is, we have all these natural resources to exploit, we have water to sell to the US, we have bridges to build so we can put more cars and trucks on the roads, we have lumber to sell, we have the Olympics coming – my God, can’t they see how great this place is? Tell them that! Go! Go!”

And that must be how Hansen ended up giving his announcement yesterday. Campbell’s body double sits in the Leg for him, because the real Gordo is in his office, drooling and mumbling still.

VANOC CEO John Furlong presented his Top Ten list of Olympic requests in his Vancouver Board of Trade address Thursday, demonstrating – yet again – how little he understands marketing or the people of Metro Vancouver.

In a city still coming to grips with news that financing for the Olympic Games Athlete Village project is in jeopardy thanks to the global economic collapse – this local crisis and proposed solutions continuing to be the matter of furious debate among Vancouver residents – Furlong’s comments leave British Columbia residents shaking their heads in amazement. Furlong pulled his fingers from his ears and stopped repeating lalalalalalalalalalalalala just long enough to challenge business leaders in town to consider mandated vacation for employees during the Games and asked residents to work from home, alter their hours or apparently just forget they have jobs entirely and stay off the streets to make room for the Olympic traffic.

Many who know him say Furlong is an incurable dreamer and these Games are the culmination of a life-long desire. Maybe so, but how could he possibly expect a business owner to close the doors – no revenue coming in – for two weeks during the Games? How could he expect a business owner to mandate its employees to take their two weeks in that glorious meteorological time of mid-February and not have it cause a mass exodus or huge drop in company morale? And what about those people in industries that will see their employees running around like one-armed paper-hangers the entire time? Social workers, nurses, doctors, medical services people, cops, firemen, hospitality staff – the Games will tax these people and the people they serve in untold ways without a dime from Olympic coffers when the last medal is presented. Most accept that whatever boost to our economy the Games bring will go right back into paying the big tax bill we all know is coming.

The most insulting thing about Furlong’s patriarchal address – and there are many – is that nothing about his call for leadership and Olympic spirit showed any of either, this was purely dad sitting the kids down before the important business guests come for dinner to warn them to be on their best behaviour because his career depends on it. To the Metro Vancouver people paying for these Games in a multitude of financial, social and logistical ways, Furlong’s exhortations to appoint an office Games Champion, embrace the spirit and support the athletes left many people dumbfounded, asking if he was for real.

He is right on one point: we should support the athletes, because, like us, they are pawns of the IOC, President Jacques Rogge and his Olympic-sized money vacuum and, like us, they will see very little of the revenue their effort and sacrifice produce. The IOC is an organization that makes the Vatican Bank look clean of corruption and yet, we’re all asked – no, told – to make way so their machine can roll into town for two weeks, destroy everything in its path and leave us all wondering what the hell just hit us.

Here are Furlong’s Top Ten Requests in italics with my reality check suggestions beside. Let the Games begin.

1. Leadership… Leadership, we haven’t seen it, yet.
2. Heroes… Hundreds of thousands of Metro Vancouver residents dealing with this mess
3. More heroes… Anyone who doesn’t succumb to a road rage moment during the Games
4. The work day… The 18-hour work day, which is what many essential and high-demand services people will be working
5. Time off… Did I say 18-hour work days?
6. Fewer cars… Fewer cars, finally something we can agree on
7. Work from home… Tell that to the ER doc or the homeless binner
8. Embrace the spirit… Employ the count-to-ten-take-deep-breaths approach
9. Support the athletes… Support the athletes, because they’re being screwed just like you and I
10. Spread the joy… Channel your inner Eckhart Tolle

In just over 24 hours, the Vancouver 2008 Civic Election morphed from snooze-a-thon to full-fledged mud wrestling match. Reporters, bloggers, opposition candidates and politicos scurry around asking questions like: Where is Estelle Lo? Why won’t Judy Rogers speak? Why weren’t taxpayers consulted? How big is the risk in the City’s assumption of the Millennium project? But no question is being asked more than this one: How can Peter Ladner manage a straight face when he chastises the public for wanting that consultation and warns that even the public discussion of this deal puts it in jeopardy?

Ladner’s ploy is so transparent, it makes Gregor Robertson’s TransLink flip-flop – which came across like something a seven-year-old might come up with – look like a master plan. Ladner’s assertion that he would rather lose the election that put this Olympic bailout deal in jeopardy is such a backhanded threat and election jab all in one, it’s astounding.

Let me get this straight, Peter: you will fall on your Mayoral campaign sword to defend the City’s right the negotiate in secrecy, outside the scrutiny of the taxpayers on the hook for this money, and if it somehow doesn’t work, it will be our fault, not Council’s? Hmmm, Estelle Lo seems to believe something’s rotten at Cambie and 12th, can she be wrong if she would rather maintain her professional reputation than back a process that wasn’t above-board? Actions speak louder than words, Peter and your words ring hollow and self-serving.

The Vision Vancouver councilors are all saying they were not briefed on the full extent of the City’s risk in this deal – which could be written off to political posturing if not for the missing-in-action Lo, who was also missing for the crucial meeting where the supposedly false numbers and/or points were presented to Council, the same meeting where all councilors voted unanimously to accept the terms of the deal. Vision’s assertion that they were not given full disclosure starts to look pretty plausible.

Consider also (jeez, I’m starting to use “also” like Sarah Palin, I promise I won’t end sentences with it) the seeming lack of political guidance surrounding Robertson’s TransLink gaffe of last week – does anyone really believe that Vision crafted this strategy where they were duped into voting for a Millennium deal by being fed false information as an election scheme? It certainly runs counter to the bumbling and missteps that have plagued their election to date and I just don’t believe they are capable of it. Face it, folks: the Vision councilors were frozen out as they claim, there’s no other reasonable explanation.

David Berner has it right – Peter Ladner’s mayoral bid is finished, and not because this deal is necessarily a bad one. He is done because of the cloak of secrecy and the arrogant Big Brother spiel preaching that excluding the public from knowing the details of these negotiations was the only way to get the deal done. Seems to me the Millennium group must understand that the City acts for the taxpayers and decisions must be subject to their consultation. We never got the chance.

Ladner made an analogy on CBC of a couple negotiating a mortgage and not letting the bank in on what their issues were – while I would agree that we taxpayers are definitely the bank in this scenario, unlike Ladner’s example, there is no other game in town and no other group of taxpayers to shop this deal to, unlike the couple who can go to another bank if they aren’t approved or don’t like the deal – we are it, Peter, and we are entitled to a say. Vancouver taxpayers should be very wary of voting in another Mayor who is a pawn of Gordon Campbell and the VANOC gang and who doesn’t believe the people have any say over this money.

The people might have actually approved this deal if it had been presented and sold to them in a democratic manner. It’s Ladner’s sleazy ways that are doing him in, he can’t be trusted and his indignant blaming of people asking questions and his petulant insistence this scrutiny might sink the deal is ludicrous. Can you say “deflection”?

Gregor, Gregor, Gregor…we really want to vote for you, but you’re making it damn hard.

Robertson’s Vancouver mayoral campaign needs a platform, it needs an issue, maybe two, that defines his candidacy and tells us who he is and what he would do and how he would be different from Peter Ladner. His missteps, although minor in essence, expose a deeply concerning lack of focus and conviction. First, he floats the idea – one largely regarded as legally impossible – to force landlords to rent out vacant strata condo units to help house the homeless, then flip flops when it becomes apparent the concept isn’t feasible.

Which brings us to the 2-fare SkyTrain boner Robertson pulled this week: Robertson received a $173 ticket for mistakenly buying an inadequate fare ticket and, when it became public, announced he was outraged at the amount he called an affront to the poor and vowed he would be taking the matter to court in December to bring attention to the injustice. Immediately, critics pounced on the story, charging Robertson was only making fighting the ticket a political issue because he was caught with an unpaid fine. For several days, his campaign veered dangerously off-track and the debate raged over whether he should have just paid the fine and moved on. It appeared Robertson’s campaign was so lacking a foundation that he tossed this line out in the water to see if maybe this could or would be the soapbox he’d been searching for.

Enter someone with some PR or political savvy to inject some sense into Robertson’s floundering run for mayor and the befuddled candidate paid the fine, decided against the court fight, apologized and cited the need to move on. Could Gregor not have worked this all out in his own head when he got the ticket – the receipt of which is not, as many seem wont to suggest, some sort of indication of low moral substance or underlying criminality on par with, say, giving an addict money to buy drugs and driving them to do it? Come on, people.

He has also come out with several half-baked ideas intended to solve homelessness and other local problems, but can’t give specifics on the cost and how the city would fund them – an ominous thread that seems to run through his presentation of new initiatives each time he raises one. Vancouver taxpayers still remembering the long garbage strike of 2007 and recent tax hikes wonder how the City will fund Robertson’s plans if he doesn’t even know – this does not exactly inspire the voters’ confidence when choosing a new mayor. We want to elect the good-looking, bike-riding, soccer-playing, business-building, socially-progressive, stick-up-for-Cambie-Street father of four, but is he up for the job?

Remember the Federal Election? Substitute “Anyone But Harper” for “Anyone But Ladner” and you sum up the feeling of many Vancouverites uneasy with the idea of electing a candidate who supported the vast majority of soon-to-be-sunset-riding Mayor Sam Sullivan’s wide-ranging and often bizarre initiatives, but only long enough to put himself in position to stab Sullivan in the back and deep six any future in politics (we hope). One can argue we don’t know or haven’t seen who Ladner is, either – is he the conservative, BC Liberal-linked, Olympic bedfellow, Machiavellian Sullivan-ite or the new and improved politico willing to revisit the Burrard Street bike lanes and achieve a homelessness solution that is respectful and supportive to all stakeholders? We just don’t know. All we do know is Ladner has proposed a tax freeze and many voters vote with their wallets, often to their detriment.

Gregor, here’s some advice: you will win if you get on Ladner about his knowledge of the City’s Property Endowment Fund and the use of that money to prop up the floundering Olympic Village project without public knowledge. Ask how this got approved and what likely scapegoat and fall girl Estelle Lo’s resignation means. Stay off TransLink or you’ll have the likes of venomous bullies such as Porvincial Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon on your back, making sure you don’t step on his carefully guarded turf. You obviously struck a nerve with him, but leave that dragon to sleep for now.

Use the gift you’ve been given today because we really want to vote for you.

The truth is finally out – Judy Rogers runs the show in Vancouver and will long after the election dust settles in November. At first blush, Frances Bula’s Vancouver Magazine piece presents an in depth, illuminating bio of the woman long acknowledged by insiders to wield almost d-word-like power in civic politics, but her style is far from dictatorial.

She does much of her work in what some would see as a classic woman’s style: she believes in partnerships and collaboration. “The city can’t make any change by itself,” she says. That’s why she put together the Vancouver Agreement, the three-government effort to salvage the Downtown Eastside. And when that stopped working, she called on people like Dobell and former attorney general Geoff Plant. To get things done, she believes, you need links to “people who are strategically placed to make things happen.”

However, upon closer examination, this “news” outing Rogers’ status and role should strike fear in the hearts of voters, taxpayers and anyone purporting to believe in democratic process – and cause downright panic in the annals of City Hall, begging the question: Are Vancouver civic elections a sham? Consider this from Bula’s piece:

Over her nine years, there has been a strong undercurrent of unease in each of the three council regimes about how much power Rogers holds, power that seems to have expanded as she’s filled the vacuums created by rookie and dysfunctional city councils. People in both political camps murmur about the bureaucratic culture Rogers presides over at City Hall that seems to see politicians as the “temporary help” whose flighty ideas need to be headed off at the pass or allowed to drift off into never-never land.

The Mayor and Council are not intended to be merely “the public face of civic politics”, they are there because of the process through which voters elect them – all under the erroneous assumption that their decisions impact the civic landscape, literally and figuratively. Make no mistake, over the years, Rogers has worn many costumes: horse whisperer to Larry Campbell’s bucking bronco, cautious tour guide to Phillip Owen and most-recently, hang-wringing puppeteer to the Sam Sullivan regime – and it was a regime because as an individual, Sullivan came so close so many times to deep-six-ing his own office through his blunders, only his gang of handlers kept the truth of his incompetence from the public and saved his administration from a premature trip to the toilet – and she is poised to assume a new as yet undetermined incarnation alongside either Peter Ladner or Gregor Robertson.

So as the city prepares to elect yet another new mayor (the third in a row), it’s no surprise that there are many conversations on both sides of the political fence along the lines of, What are we going to do about Judy? Because it’s clear that getting to the throne at City Hall this November will be only half the battle. Then there’s dealing with the power beyond the throne.

Perhaps the public’s new awareness of Rogers’ omnipotence will create barely a ripple, due in large part to the fact that she is damned good at what she does. There seems to be little suggestion from anyone on the inside – love or hate her – that Rogers has done anything but carefully consider and weigh her decisions with the gravity of a judge on a death penalty case; she is extremely hard to find fault with. Perhaps no one has a problem with her as the financial, social, developmental and environmental compass guiding the city through the murky waters of increasing homelessness, high property crime, unparalleled drug trade, the Olympics, Civil City, the future of Eco-Density and the threat of big box development, but one would think the citizens would want these decisions exposed to the light of due process and transparency.

Missing in Bula’s piece is any mention of the challenge to end homelessness. Rogers and the rest of City Hall may find this issue on their doorstep far sooner than later – perhaps even before the new Mayor and Council are elected – and the smart money says this may press Rogers into action to create a plan that works for all the stakeholders. If anyone is up to the task, it sounds like it’s her.

As Vancouver’s major civic parties prepare to nominate candidates for the upcoming election, concern mounts surrounding the sheer volume of people throwing their hats in.

The wide array of interested people has even the most seasoned and savvy watchers of 12th and Cambie more than mildly confused and questioning how the average uninformed voter will react at the polls November 15. Frances Bula ventured bravely where no one dared go before by compiling this list of prospective hopefuls for the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), Vision Vancouver, and Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) – a herculean and no doubt thankless task. Bula’s list serves to highlight several incongruities such as why Jamie Lee Hamilton – the woman who never met a board or committee she couldn’t single-handedly join and destroy with her pettiness and instability – warrants a mention when she hasn’t officially announced anything, while environmental activist Betty Krawczyk came out months ago as a candidate for the Work Less Party, but seemingly can’t buy a line in anyone’s coverage. She may be 80, but she’s a fighter and shows no fear.

Comparing the Vision Vancouver hopefuls with those from COPE, especially for City Council, the deck seems clearly stacked in favour of Vision, who will be hard-pressed to chose from the talented field. COPE is a party in decline and has been since Larry Campbell, Tim Stevenson, Raymond Louie and Jim Green broke from the party prior to the 2005 election to offer a more fiscally-conservative alternative to form what became known as “COPE Lite” prior to changing the party name to Vision Vancouver.

Pivot Legal’s David Eby clearly saw the writing on the wall, throwing his support behind Vision Mayoralty candidate Gregor Robertson and announcing his own intention to run for Vision, if they’ll have him, in what proves to be another quirk of this election since his politics appear far better-suited to COPE than Vision. Still, this is a guy who knows how and wants to make a difference and he can’t if ties himself to a dud party. Time will tell whether promising COPE candidates newcomer Meena Wong and veteran Ellen Woodsworth can hang onto the sinking COPE ship long enough to secure council spots and they may be watching Eby secure himself a spot as they ponder their next career moves.

All this confusion and the sheer number of names to juggle works in the NPA’s favour, as they maintain manageable candidate numbers and quietly work toward their September 13th nomination meeting, keeping as much attention as possible off the debacles of Sam Sullivan’s reign and their unflinching support of his whacky initiatives, even when they were wringing their hands behind the scenes, plotting his overthrow. One can almost imagine Sam mouthing the words “Et tu, Peter” as he leaves City Hall that final time in November. Will the public forgive Peter Ladner this subterfuge or question his ethics and commitment to the party that made him what he is?

More on the NPA next time…..

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