As downtown development squeezes a rising number of homeless British Columbians into a dwindling number of urban campsites, Vancouver's homeless are passing their nights in some surprising locations.
Judy Graves has spent the past dozen years touring Vancouver's dark parks, garbage-strewn alleys, and mouldy abandoned buildings. Graves, who co-ordinates the city's pioneering street outreach program, said the roughest place she's found yet is located directly beneath the glistening dome at Telus World of Science.
"This is the worst," Graves said as she led The Tyee on a tour of the murky labyrinth at the eastern edge of False Creek. "This is the place that scares me the most."
It's a place that one must be either mentally ill or drug addicted to endure. Yet the piles of abandoned clothes, drug paraphernalia, and oddly disassembled household appliances strewn just above the tide's reach suggest there is no shortage of such visitors.
And it's a place literally soaked in irony: even as the Olympic Village for the 2010 Winter Games rises next door, the piers beneath what was the signature structure of Expo 86 have become a last refuge for Vancouver's most desperate residents.
The city's police know the place well. Last summer they worked with the Coast Guard to help pluck a homeless man from underneath the shiny tourist attraction. He had been trapped by the rising tide.
A place to feel safe
There are two distinct neighbourhoods beneath the Science World docks. The more hospitable portion abuts the rising Olympic Village to the south, near where the colourful False Creek ferries dock.
Graves stepped through a cleverly concealed opening in the construction fence, and down a well-worn path that leads beneath the pier. Footprints in the morning frost showed that someone had left the area prior to our arrival.
"For most of the people I've found on this side, the basic problem is schizophrenia," Graves said as she picked her way along a narrow, garbage-strewn footpath. "These aren't addicts. These are people who are functional, but who see the world very differently than you and I. They tend to be extremely shy."
At the top of the steep gravel slope beneath the pier, between the large cross beams and just beneath the decking, three earthen nests have been mounded up against the retaining wall. Each nest is about the diameter of a pup tent. Each is lined with soggy blankets and plastic bags filled with personal items. Clothes hang neatly from the overhead crossbeams.
"It's very quiet here," Graves said. Water lapped at her feet; seagulls squabbled high overhead. "It's incredibly isolated. And it's pitch black. No one is going to go in there at night to get them. So they feel safe here."
Crawling with rats
The serene view of Yaletown glimmering across the tidewater belies a less appealing element of urban nature: rats.
Graves tried to relocate the Science World squatters in advance of the former Molson Indy races and other large events, so they would not become trapped.
"I went down in the middle of the night to meet one guy because I couldn't find him at home during the day," Graves recalled. "The whole place was just completely alive with rats. Hundreds and hundreds of rats, crawling and leaping everywhere. They were scurrying across his nest, over his sleeping body, over my feet."
Graves shuddered as she told the story.
"Inside myself, I was beginning to go completely hysterical. So I woke him up and said, 'I can't handle this. It's just too many rats. Would you mind coming upstairs and talking to me on the sidewalk?'"
She climbed back up and settled herself with a cigarette. He pulled on his pants and joined her.
"You know," he told her. "Some people have dogs. Some people have cats. I have rats."
Graves shook herself again, and laughed: "Even as I talk about it, I start creeping right out."
A place to use in private
The other neighbourhood is beneath the pier that extends to the north of Science World.
"This side is used as a shooting gallery," Graves said. "It's a place where people go in to use drugs, to use pornography, to use whatever."
The slope beneath the north pier is steeper. The area above tide line is smaller, much further back from the edge of the pier, and therefore darker. The nests are too small to lie down in comfortably, and too close to the deck above to stand up in at all. And they are surrounded not by blankets and bags, but by a flotsam of crack pipes, broken syringes, piles of soggy porn, abandoned shoes, soiled underwear, and an astonishing assortment of disassembled electronic appliances.
"This place scares me," Graves said. "It's dark and remote. If someone came in behind you, you'd be completely trapped. There's nowhere to go but further in. It would be easy to be raped or assaulted under here, and it's unlikely that anyone up above would even hear you scream."
No one stays here for more than a few days at a time, Graves said.
"The people I've found on the south side have lives. Not the same lives you and I live, but they still have dreams and goals they are fulfilling in whatever small way," she said.
"Here the people have abandoned themselves. You see the result of the lowest part of an addiction, where even the addiction has lost all meaning. They're not protecting themselves. They're not even protecting the materials of their addiction. It's just gone."
Police rescue at high tide
Over the last several years, the city has erected a succession of fences in an attempt to limit access to the area under the north pier. The most recent version is built of heavy metal plate. But addicts simply wade into the creek at low tide, and push their way through openings in the older chain-link fence below.
As recently as last June, the Vancouver Police Department's marine unit was called to rescue a homeless man who became stranded at high tide.
"A fella' who was living in the area went under there at low tide, then the tide came in and trapped him," said Jamie Gibson, a constable in the VPD's marine unit.
Gibson said the VPD's Zodiac was too large to squeeze beneath the fencing and the pier. He called the Coast Guard, which brought a smaller boat.
"He wasn't injured, but he could have got in an even tighter spot if the tide had come up any higher," Gibson said.
"Sadly, we do have quite a few people inhabiting that area," Gibson added, noting that they also live in shoreline bushes and on derelict boats. "Many appear to be people who need some assistance in caring for themselves, but don't seem to be getting the help they need."
Olympics and displacement studied
Some Vancouver parents may find it upsetting that such misery endures within sight of any observant child gazing out the Science World windows or playing in the adjoining park. But experts who study the long-term effects of mega events such as Expo 86 and the 2010 Olympics would not find it surprising.
The Olympic games alone have displaced more than two million people during the past 20 years, according to a 2007 report by the Geneva-based Centre of Housing Rights and Evictions. Very few of those evictions were caused directly by Olympic organizers making way for venue construction. The vast majority were instead the result of speculative development in advance of the Games themselves.
In Sydney, for example, rents rose by 40 per cent during a five-year period leading up to the 2000 Summer Games. And in Atlanta, the report concludes that 30,000 residents were displaced by gentrification, rental speculation and urban renewal. "The criminalisation of homeless was a key feature of the 1996 Atlanta Games," states the report, "9,000 arrest citations were issued."
Graves said that the same sorts of factors appear to be driving the visible rise in street homelessness here in Vancouver. With residential hotels being converted to other uses, shelters turning away more people than they can sleep, and even campsites like the one under Science World being policed more aggressively, Vancouver's most vulnerable residents are finding themselves with literally nowhere to go.
"This is just one of many really rough spots where people are nesting in this city," Graves said. "And we're finding more all the time."
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