Tent City


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.

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.