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Those For and Against Olympics Join Forces to Solve Homelessness

How to bring the same amount of energy and resources that went into the Olympics to the problem of solving homelessness in Vancouver? That was the subject of a panel last night at the First United Church on Hastings.  And although the mayor showed up, missing were many of the key public officials who could be pivotal in making this happen:  Premier Gordon Campbell, for instance. 

The key point, one observer said, was the initiative and how it fit in with precisely what various community groups have been saying for years. The next important point was that the mayor of the city hosting the Games and one of the strongest opponents of the Olympics were both there to support the initiative. But the fact that lots of local politicos  were not there and why... NDP to position themselves for future campaigns, Libs to duck the issue....may have been the most important fact of all.

Whatever the case, with only 48 hours notice, Ric Matthews, Minister of the First United Church on East Hastings pulled together an impressive panel of NDP MPs, MLAs and Vancouver City Councillors as the mayor. The purpose of the panel discussion was to discuss the need for all three levels of government, plus the corporate sector to come together to solve homelessness in the same way that they came together around the Olympics.

After introducing the assembled elected officials, Matthews read off the list of elected officials unable to attend. That list included Gordon Campbell, Colin Hansen, Mary MacNeil, Kash Heed, Spenser Herbert and oddly enough, the mayor of Chilliwack. As Matthews read off the list of elected officials who were unable to attend, you really felt as if Campbell and Hansen were sincerely sorry to have missed the meeting tonight.

The forum was supposed to begin promptly at 7pm but Matthews explained that Mayor Gregor had other commitments this evening and was likely to be a few minutes late. However, within a few minutes of Matthews making that announcement, Robertson arrived.

When the mayor arrived, it was as if a rock star had entered the room. Everyone wanted to touch him, whisper something in his ear, shake his hand or just be near him. Even the assembled media (Global, CTV, CBC and other print media) picked up their cameras and turned to watch Robertson  walk to the podium. Seeing the crowd respond to Mayor Gregor really was an amazing spectacle.

Then Gregor spoke to the gathered people. He reiterated his pledge to end street homelessness by 2015 and end homeless by 2020. He talked about how he admires the energy, drive and dedication as demonstrated by all three levels of government, and the corporate sector, to get Vancouver prepared to host the Olympics. And he talked about using that same energy, drive and dedication to solve the homelessness crisis that exists in Vancouver.

As the mayor spoke, the people in the audience, largely people who reside on the Downtown Eastside, spontaneously cheered the  message. It appeared that he could do or say no wrong.

He held firm to the belief that there is no need for a corporate, top-down management structure to deal with homelessness. When asked if he thought an organization like VANOC could be continued to bring an end to homelessness he was firm in his answer, “NO.” When asked if he thought someone like John Furlong could be used to head up a committee or group to solve homelessness, the mayor was steadfast, “This must be a community driven solution.”

On the way out of the room I asked Mayor Robertson if perhaps former city councillor Jim Green was being considered for the job of Czar of the DTES, Mayor Gregor smiled and replied, “Not as far as I know.”

Later I asked Councillor Tim Stephenson the same question. Stephenson told me that it was his opinion that Jim Green was now too far removed from the DTES community to be able to be effective in that role.

NDP MLA Jenny Kwan was given a rougher ride. One individual in the crowd got up and shouted at her about the NDP’s track record from when they were in government. When Kwan was able to continue she pointed out that, “This [homelessness] is a problem we know how to fix. This is not some disease that we have to search to find a cure to. We know how to fix this problem.”

A funny thing though, whereas Robertson set 2015 as the goal-year to eliminate street homelessness, no other speaker mentioned a date. To the more cynical in the crowd you might even say that there were lots of platitudes and feel-good words that really accomplish nothing. Which was quite comical in the sense that one of the key speakers this evening, Chris Shaw, Olympic “resister” and speaker here tonight said repeatedly that the issue of homelessness requires “Deeds, not words.”

During the question and answer period  after all the feel good speeches were done, I asked Councillor Tim Stephenson how likely it is that the city can meet the goal of eliminating street homelessness by 2015 when they have so little support from the federal government. He admitted that it was going to be difficult and that, “We are in deep, but the mayor remains committed to this.”

This evening was really all about the words and had nothing to do with the deeds that Chris Shaw mentioned. It will be interesting to watch the situation in the Downtown Eastside as the Olympics take over our city. Will the attention of the world spur action on the homelessness issue? This is definitely a community you want to stay tuned to over the coming days and weeks.

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