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UN Observer: 'Massive Crisis' in Vancouver

Blames 'misguided policy' for homeless wave.

Am Johal 31 Oct

Am Johal is an independent writer based in Vancouver and was founder of the Impact on Communities Coalition. He served as a Vancouver focal point for Mr. Kothari's meetings with civil society organizations.

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UN's Kothari: 'Taken aback'

Miloon Kothari, the UN Special Rapporteur for Housing, recently visited Canada on a fact-finding mission to look at the issues of homelessness, Aboriginal housing issues, women's housing issues and the impact of the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. Mr. Kothari granted this interview during his recent visit.

What have you noticed in Canada so far? Let's start with Montreal and Quebec?

It's certainly not a perfect situation, but they do have very entrenched social policies and are very conscious of the need for social housing. With Quebec, we have a province that continued to fund social housing after the federal cuts [in the early 1990s], so there is a commitment within the government of a social leaning towards housing policies.

That being said, the problems... are present in Montreal. There is evidence of gentrification in the city and displacement and pushing low-income people out.

We went to the Kahnawake reserve and spoke to aboriginal leaders there. There were chiefs from four different territories, including from the northern parts, testimonies and information on the housing and living conditions in the territories which are, of course, very disturbing.

How was Ottawa?

Homelessness in Ottawa is not as visible as you would see in other places in Canada, like Edmonton or Toronto. There is a hidden homelessness, there is a large crisis in housing, high density situations, there are not enough facilities for women escaping domestic violence. The problems in Ottawa are the same issue of affordability and gentrification, and again, disproportionate representation of women and aboriginal people who are affected by homelessness.

How was your visit to Edmonton?

We visited a house and apartment where immigrant families are staying. It was very disturbing. The officials said it was because of the boom, but homelessness is very visible.

There is also large drug related problem. And, of course, again, there is over-representation amongst specific groups. There is a need for shelters for women, single mothers, children.

We also visited the Lubicon Territory because the UN has been following that case for some time. It was the first on-site visit there. We met with the chief and elders and saw their homes -- in all the homes, there is no potable drinking water available, and the sanitation is very poor.

We toured the area where the oil exploration is going on. We were very concerned about the Lubicon... they are being actively pushed out, lands are being taken away, the area is being polluted. We will certainly take their situation up as a violation of their rights.

What about Vancouver?

There is a deep homelessness problem here. I must say I was taken aback by the scale of the crisis here in the Downtown Eastside.

It's glaringly apparent in Vancouver that for quite some time... successive governments have failed to create the housing that is necessary. You have a legacy of misguided government policy that has led to this massive crisis in housing and homelessness.

We didn't hear this in other places. The decrepit nature of SROs, the conditions of the buildings that people are living in, very poor health...I was repeatedly struck by the contrast that I see because it is such a beautiful city, because there has been so much investment. It is striking that a few blocks from million-dollar condominiums, that there is such immense poverty.

There seems to be a disconnect between the economic policies in Vancouver and the social policies that need to be in place.

Are Olympics and hallmark events linked to evictions?

The history of mega-events -- whether they are Olympic Games, hallmark events, large conferences -- the history has been very negative, in terms of the legacy related to housing.

In the developed world, if you look at what happened in Atlanta, Barcelona and Salt Lake City, there have been evictions... not just the poor but the middle class.

What are some of the more egregious housing situations in the world today?

I would say that the part that is the most disturbing, and the scale is astounding, is the issue of forced evictions.... what we see is an astronomical rise in development and market-driven evictions.

Today, more people are being displaced by large development projects than places of conflict. There are shocking statistics, millions of people around the world being displaced.

There is the whole area of increased speculation on land and property and the firm belief now across the world of the primacy of the market. This expansion of neo-liberal thinking has many nation-states moving away from addressing these complex phenomena as legitimate social issues.

On your recent visit to Australia, what were your findings?

There are many similarities to what I have seen in Canada.... The speculation on land and property is so prevalent that even the middle class can no longer afford to buy.

There isn't enough focus on housing for low-income groups. Policies are geared toward home ownership.

There's also a growing phenomenon of homelessness, very adverse, very disturbing housing conditions of the aboriginal people, many, we found that there was missing a national perspective on housing. In the legal system, the right to housing was not recognized.

We suggested that housing solutions should be based on a housing continuum where you have enough shelters, boarding houses, hostels, transitional, ownership, affordable rental units. We also suggested a restructuring of the taxation system. Australia is among the highest in the world in terms of tax benefits to home ownership and to developers.

Anything else?

The major obstacle right now, is the assault on human rights defenders, housing and land rights activists, people who are struggling for housing, land rights and water.

We are seeing many examples of this and it is becoming more and more difficult. It is creating a situation, where we are having more violations, and with governments, we are having a more and more difficult time.

What we are seeing in the streets is totally unacceptable. The whole issue of market-based evictions, [for example]. What we see out there is very, very disturbing and adequate responses are not happening.

If you look at the violations on the street, the series of other connected problems, it is a violation of human rights. The human rights approach should not be run away from, but adopted comprehensively.

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