The controversial Assisting to Shelter Act has not been approved yet, but critics say the proposed provincial law has a familiar, and troubling, ring to it.
Vancouver could be joining a long list of Olympic host cities that passed legislation close to the Games allowing governments to clear the streets of the poor, homeless and addicted just in time for the tourists and cameras to arrive. The act would give Vancouver police the power to force a person to seek shelter when an extreme weather alert is issued. If there is no room at city shelters, people will be put in a jail cell.
The B.C. government maintains the act is not intended for Olympic purposes, but to prevent deaths like that of a homeless woman named Tracey who died last December when a candle she lit to stay warm caught her on fire.
But anti-poverty and anti-Olympic activists are not convinced. They point to examples of legislation and ordinances passed in previous host cities, and one future mega-event, used to criminalize homelessness. Here are some:
1988 Winter Games, Seoul, South Korea
After the Urban Redevelopment Law (Public Law #3646) was passed under the guise of city beautification, 48,000 buildings housing 720,000 people were destroyed between 1982 and 1988 for the purpose of building highrise apartments and commercial buildings. Ninety per cent of the dislocated people could not afford the new housing, and many were forced to live in shantytowns erected in church parking lots and other open spaces, which were often subjected to eviction by police. Closer to the Games, homeless people and street peddlers were also rounded up and removed from the city for "beautification."
1996 Summer Games, Atlanta, GA, USA
City officials in Atlanta used a combination of new and old legislation to criminalize homelessness in the city. From 1995 to 1996, over 9,000 homeless people, predominantly African-American men, were arrested for crimes such as sleeping in a park or on the street (Chapter 110, Article I, Sec 106-12, passed in 1996), entering a vacant building without permission (city ordinance Chapter 106, Article II, Sec. 106, passed in 1977), entering a parking lot without owning a car parked there (Chapter 106, Article II, Sec. 106-57, passed in 1996), and urinating or defecating in public (Chapter 106 Article IV, Sec. 106-130, passed in 1977).
The city claimed these laws were passed to make the city a safer place to be during the Games. Those arrested during the Games were held for trial until after the event was over.
The Metro Atlanta Task Force on Homelessness later uncovered pre-printed arrest citations that had "male, African American, homeless" typed on them, with the name and crime left blank. They later used these and the arrest warrants of the 9,000 homeless in a Federal Court suit they brought against the city. The court granted a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction against the city, ordering them to “cease and desist” arresting and harassing homeless people without probable cause.
Those not arrested were encouraged to get out of town. Traveler's Aid, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping travelers and relocating people, distributed one-way bus tickets to poor and homeless people to get them out of the city, and even out of the state. The Fulton County government provided $750,000 to fund this venture.
Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta was privatized under a contract with Georgia State University, and underwent renovations to discourage the homeless from frequenting the park, including the installation of benches with steel armrests, which made it difficult to sleep on them. University security patrolled the park, and ticketed charity vans distributing food to the homeless.
2000 Summer Games, Sydney, Australia
The Homebush Bay Operations Act and Regulation passed in 1999 to cover Homebush Bay, the site of the Olympic Village and Park. Police and other officials were given the power to remove people from the area for vague reasons such as causing “annoyance or inconvenience” or using indecent language.
The Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority Act passed in 1999 protected Sydney Harbour, an Olympic site and a hot spot for tourist activity. Police and other officials could remove people for skateboarding, rollerblading, panhandling or attempting to sleep in the area overnight. Both laws required warnings to be issued prior to arrest.
According to Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions' publication The Impact of the Sydney Olympic Games on Housing Rights, these laws did not have a significant impact on the homeless population. Then police commander Donald Graham expressed his view that homelessness wasn't a crime and that the homeless had every right to be on the streets.
But some laws had a lasting effect on the homeless population even after the Games wrapped up, according to Helen Lenskyj, author of Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda.
"Sydney Harbour Bridge area has been successfully privatized, and there used to be about 70 homeless people living and sleeping in a park fairly close to the harbour near the Opera House," she says.
"Sydney Harbour Foreshore's legislation is the pertinent one that's empowering private security and police to get rid of what they see as undesirable people in their tourist area, particularly for New Year because that's when the big fire works display is happening on the Harbour Bridge."
2004 Summer Games, Athens, Greece
Law 2730/1999 concerning the planning, development and construction of Olympic works gave the government the power to expropriate land for Olympic use. Anyone living on this land was supposed to be given 24-hour notice to vacate, or face eviction. Houses or businesses on expropriated land were given up to 10 days to vacate the area.
But the law was disproportionately used to break up Roma shantytowns, regardless of whether or not the land was actually needed for Olympic use. For example, in July 2000 the town of Aspropyrgos bulldozed several Roma shacks, while the nearby town of Ano Liosia evicted Roma families from their tent settlement, offering them $100,000 drachmas (US $266) as compensation. Their tents were then destroyed.
In both cases, municipalities claimed the land was needed for Olympic use, despite the fact the International Olympic Committee had made it clear in 1999 that no Olympic facilities were to be built there. The displaced Roma people were relocated to land outside the municipalities.
In all, hundreds of Roma were relocated under the pretense of the needing land for the Olympic Games.
There were rumours that Greek court prosecutors were issuing decrees to commit homeless people, drug addicts, alcoholics and people with mental illnesses to asylums for the Games. While no legislation was passed concerning this practice, in June 2004 staff from the Dromokaition psychiatric hospital went on strike to protest the number of alcoholics, drug addicts and homeless people forced into their care.
2010 FIFA World Cup, various cities, South Africa
The city of Durban, one of many in South Africa hosting World Cup games next year, is home to 14 shantytowns encompassing 5,000 to 7,000 people each. The African National Congress government is offering shantytown residents housing if they move 50 kilometres outside of the city, but the Durban Shack Dwellers Movement, which represents all 14 communities, claims when people arrive there is no housing and they end up living in transitional camps while awaiting housing.
Government legislation encouraging the destruction of shantytowns includes the Slums Act, passed in 2006, which states if you resist eviction you will be fined 20,000 rand (US $2,704.53) or sentenced to five years in jail. Thousands of people have reportedly left the shantytowns already.
On Sept. 26, 2009, a group of 40 men allegedly attacked one of the shantytowns, killing two people. Eyewitnesses claim the men were affiliated with the African National Congress government.
Timing an accident?
The City of Vancouver passed a series of Olympic bylaws this summer, the most controversial being the sign bylaw, requiring all signage criticizing the Games to be removed. But the city maintains no new legislation will be passed before the Games, and when it comes to police interaction with the city’s significant low-income and homeless population, it will be business as usual.
"It's my understanding that the Vancouver Police Department will be operating the way they are now," says Marnie McGregor, project manager with the city's communications department. "There's no other bylaws."
But critics like author Helen Lenskyj say that if history is any guide, the timing of the proposed Assisting to Shelter Act in B.C. is no accident. "The Olympics is the only thing it's related to," says Lenskyj. "I'm sure there's been deaths [of homeless people in Vancouver] every year and nothing has been done, and if it was that urgent, why not do it last year?"
Read more: 2010 Olympics, Rights + Justice
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