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VANOC Antes up for Shelter

Street youth grant is 'chump change': critic.

By Monte Paulsen 15 Apr 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Monte Paulsen is investigative editor of The Tyee. He welcomes e-mail and invites respectful comment in the forum below.

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VANOC's David Guscott.

Organizers of the 2010 Winter Olympics will contribute $250,000 toward the expansion of a Vancouver shelter for homeless youth.

Today's announcement represents VANOC's first actual expenditure toward relieving the street homelessness that threatens to embarrass Canada throughout the 2010 Winter Games. There are already twice as many homeless people in British Columbia as there will be athletes at the 2010 games.

"We know from other Olympics that there is a concentration of shelter bed requirements," said David Guscott, VANOC's vice president for celebrations and partnerships. "And we made a commitment to do our best to make sure we can meet that demand. Now we are doing it, with our partners."

The Province of British Columbia "topped up" VANOC's contribution with an investment of $4.75 million in both capital and operational funds. Neither of VANOC's other two partners -- the City of Vancouver and the federal government -- contributed to the project, which will expand Covenant House to 54 beds.

"Two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollars is chump change for VANOC," said David Eby, a housing advocate and attorney who represents displaced tenants in the Downtown Eastside.

Half of what VANOC plans to spend

Vancouver's bid for the 2010 Games included detailed promises to minimize displacement of low-income residents in inner-city neighbourhoods. These 37 promises became known as the Inner-City Inclusive (ICI) Commitments.

In 2006, VANOC and the provincial government set up a committee of government, business and community-based organizations to determine how to implement those commitments. This group was called the Inner-City Inclusivity (ICI) Housing Table. Among its many recommendations were that 3,200 units of new social housing be built by 2010.

After an unsuccessful attempt to bury the ICI Housing Table report, VANOC decreed that such efforts "exceed our authority or capacity to act," and passed the buck to government. VANOC's key governmental partners, the Province of British Columbia and the City of Vancouver, promptly followed suit.

In so doing, VANOC unilaterally reduced its responsibility to a short list of ICI commitments "within our delivery scope."

These include three housing commitments:

First, the post-Games contribution of 250 units of "non-market" housing in the Olympic village at southeast False Creek, and another 1,000 beds of "affordable resident worker" housing in Whistler. Neither of those projects expected to provide housing for the poor or homeless.

Second, VANOC commits to "managing Games-time demand for low-cost housing." VANOC proposes to prevent displacement of inner-city residents by "ensuring no private suppliers of single room accommodation housing stock are on any Games-related accommodation list (for VANOC, sponsors, government partners, IOC)."

(In other words, VANOC vows not to bivouac corporate donors, government ministers or International Olympic Committee representatives in hotels like the Backpacker's Inn.)

And last on VANOC's redacted to-do list is the expenditure of $500,000 on local homeless shelters "to address increase in demand for short-term shelter during Games-time." Thus VANOC's Covenant House announcement represents fully half of all that it plans to spend on homelessness.

"There's another $250,000 that will be used for similar projects," Guscott told The Tyee. "That's it for our piece. But of course...we do these with our partners."

'A token effort'

"The fact that VANOC is putting money into homeless shelters reflects an understanding that they have an obligation to deal with these issues," said David Eby, of Pivot Legal Society. "But it's a token effort, one that I think is driven by a public relations agenda."

Eby said 32 additional beds at Covenant House would not even absorb the number of recently evicted Downtown Eastside residents, much less the influx of street youth that mega-events such as the Olympics are known to attract.

"When you look at the amounts of money VANOC spends on trivial projects --- I'm talking about parties and mascots --- it's obvious that VANOC has no intention of honouring its commitments to the inner-city."

Pivot is among the coalition of groups launching a human rights complaint with the United Nations over the impact of the 2010 Winter Olympics on affordable housing in the Downtown Eastside.

Eby is among VANOC's most persistent critics. He publishes a blog entitled The Official Vancouver 2010 Olympics Newswire, on which he described VANOC's report on its progress toward the ICI commitments as a "whitewash."

"VANOC...takes credit for every imaginable suggestion of housing possibly opening, funded or unfunded, regardless of when it was announced," Eby wrote. "Yet...VANOC disowns any responsibility for anything negative happening on the housing front, including the issue of low-rent housing closing during the reporting period."

And Eby scoffed at VANOC's promise to bar Games-related visitors from Downtown Eastside residential hotels. "Does anyone really believe that VANOC is out there, working hard, preventing a gang of globetrotting billionaires from taking over the Backpacker's?" he asked. "It's ludicrous."

Covenant House to double

Eby praised VANOC's decision to focus its "meagre" efforts on homeless youth, many of whom have already been failed by B.C.'s youth care system.

Fully 40 per cent of B.C.'s homeless street youth had spent time in government care, according to Against the Odds: A Profile of Marginalized and Street-Involved Youth in B.C. published last year by the McCreary Centre Society. That study also found that Aboriginals represented a disproportionate 57 per cent of the street youth population, and that more than one in three street youth reported they had been sexually exploited.

Covenant House is a shelter and resource centre for homeless youth aged 16 through 22. The Pender Street centre provided shelter, food, clothing and counselling to 1,400 youth last year -- but turned away another 400. The $5 million expansion announced Monday will enable Covenant House to more than double its capacity, from 22 to 54 beds. ($850,000 of that funding came from B.C.'s Housing Endowment Fund.)

"We're impressed with Covenant House's commitment and passion to bettering the lives of youth," VANOC's Guscott said at Monday's announcement. "This will enable more at-risk youth to access shelter support before, during and after the Games."

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