Monday, January 28, 2008

Jean's Eastside visit just a 2010 preview

Michaëlle Jean's visit to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside should be a wake-up call.
The Governor General toured the tormented streets last week, a visit that went predictably awry. She was flanked by a bunch of security people; many of the residents jeered and called questions. (Most of the rougher comments were directed at the Vancouver councilor along on the walkabout; Mayor Sam Sullivan stayed away.)
Jean said she wished she had been able to see the area without so much fuss. She could have, just by slipping into town early and walking around. She wasn't likely going to be recognized down there.
The whole weird event was a reminder of what's ahead two years from now when media from around the world descend on Vancouver for the Olympics. Short of gathering up the addicted, homeless, mentally ill and dirt poor and busing them out of town, there is almost no chance that the horror show will be on full display in 2010.
People who don't get to Vancouver - or don't venture into the few blocks off the business and tourist zones - likely don't know how bad it is.
The five or six blocks of chaos aren't necessarily dangerous, at least in the daytime.
They are, though, sad and horrifying both. This isn't like the old days, when a few hundred alcoholic men made up the Eastside skid-row community. Some of them drank in parks and fought and panhandled and froze to death on cold nights.
But they were a small problem, one everyone was used to.
Today the same streets are like something out of a bleak movie about the future, when social order has collapsed. I've travelled a little bit, in some poor and strange places.
Nowhere have I seen any place as weird. (The South Bronx in the mid-seventies came close; with its blocks of burned out buildings it looked like there had been some sort of war, complete with aerial bombardment.)
There are stores, but customers run a gauntlet of the sick and addicted to get to them. Sketchy looking pawn shops and vacant storefronts predominate.
The sidewalks are the living room for people with nowhere else to spend time. They're skinny, pale, dressed badly and often obviously sick - coughing, or with abscesses. They gather in groups. Some shout, some in deep conversation with voices only they hear. No one looks real young, but who can tell. Some look like they're grandparents, except everything's gone wrong.
And drugs are everywhere.
It is crazy: Part Third World and part science fiction.
There are a lot of reasons. We closed mental institutions over the last several decades, but never provided support for the people who had lived in them. Now many have fallen to the Eastside. Addiction and drug polices have been a dismal failure. Housing and welfare polices haven't worked.
Perhaps most significantly, we haven't worked at prevention - at catching young mothers before things spin out of control, at supporting kids so they don't slide into addiction and hopelessness.
Now our failures are about to go on display for the world. As the Michaëlle Jean tour showed, all this makes good television. It will be a perfect colour story for every TV station from every country in the world in 2010 - how blocks from Olympic hockey games, and minutes from condos worth million, there's another, wretched British Columbia.
And the more intrepid reporters will take the story a little farther - a feature on the troubled street scene in Victoria, or drug problems in almost any town or city.
The government has taken a lot of useful steps in the last few months, especially in working towards protecting or creating housing. Even small communities have got funding for outreach workers to help people find and keep homes.
But it's not nearly enough to even patch over the problems by 2010. Either the government has to get much more serious, quickly, or the world is going to get an ugly eyeful when the Games are on.
Footnote: The heckling and abuse were the roughest treatment Jean has experienced since starting the job more than two years ago. The visit ended with protests outside a formal dinner. One man was tasered by police.


Anonymous said...

If we're only worried about 2 weeks in 2010, governments will be able to get by with a simple expedient of increased policing for the games. We're not talking about Vancouver's best-behaved residents here, so it wouldn't be hard to simply crack down on even minor offenses and pack the jails for the duration of the Olympics. It would be expensive, it might violate civil rights, and wouldn't solve a thing, but it would be expedient. That's what I'm betting on...

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