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Poverty Olympics spotlight Downtown Eastside

Poverty Olympics spotlight Downtown Eastside
February 9, 2009

VANCOUVER -- They have their own Olympic mascots - Itchy the Bedbug, Creepy the Cockroach and Chewy the Rat - their own torch, made from a toilet plunger, and a catchy marketing phrase: "End poverty. It's not a game."

But what the Poverty Olympics doesn't have is money - and that was the main point being underscored yesterday by a celebration/protest march through the Downtown Eastside.

About 200 people joined in the parade down East Hastings Street as the Poverty Olympics, an event that serves as a rallying point for low-income advocacy groups, marked the one-year countdown to the 2010 Olympic Games.

The event was organized by several non-profit groups to draw attention to the way governments are spending billions of dollars on the Olympic Games even while intense poverty can be found in the Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood that will be one of the main urban backdrops to the sporting spectacle.

"If the money that was spent on the Olympics was spent on ending poverty and homelessness, we could end poverty and homelessness. It would be that simple," said Jean Swanson of the Carnegie Community Action Project, an advocacy agency for the poor.

The 2010 Olympics will open and close with ceremonies at BC Place Stadium, just a few blocks from the southern edge of the Downtown Eastside, one of Canada's poorest neighbourhoods.

The government of British Columbia has estimated the cost of the Games at about $600-million, but a report by the provincial Auditor-General has put it at about $2.5-billion.

Some media estimates have calculated it could be more than $6-billion when all federal, provincial and local government contributions are added up.

While the B.C. government has been trying in the pre-Olympic period to address homelessness in the Downtown Eastside by buying and renovating old hotels, Ms. Swanson said the effort isn't helping. "The Olympics have brought no benefits to this community at all. Those hotels already had residents in them, so they are not additional housing, and they are not suitable permanent homes. They are still one-room residences, with a washroom down the hall and no kitchen. How do you expect low-income people to eat cheaply with no kitchen?"

Robert Bonner, a volunteer at the Carnegie Community Centre, a drop-in facility in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, dressed for the parade as one of the mascots.

Mr. Bonner said his Creepy the Cockroach outfit was a way to both mock the Olympic Games, and drive home a message about the inadequacy of housing in the area.

He said many of the hotel rooms he goes into while doing volunteer work are infested with cockroaches.

"The carpets move when you walk across them," he said.

Mr. Bonner said he hoped the Poverty Olympics would make people more aware of the problems in the Downtown Eastside. "This is to draw attention to the poverty, the homelessness," he said. "It couldn't get much worse down here."

Mr. Bonner said while people "on the other side of town" might be looking forward to the Games with excitement, in the Downtown Eastside there is a growing sense of fear.

"Already security has started to increase, so you have to wonder what it's going to be like in 2010," he said. "I can see a lot of street people getting hassled."

Garvin Snider was one of those bringing up the tail end of the Poverty Olympics parade. He waved a sign that said: "Poverty is not a crime."Mr. Snider said residents of the Downtown Eastside don't feel there are any opportunities for them to be involved in the Olympic Games.

"We'd all like to participate," he said. "The Olympics is supposed to be for everyone. They are looking for 10,000 volunteers. We have 15,000 people on the streets. What a wonderful thing if we could all participate. But since we can't, we're having our own event. And these games are much more fun."

Mr. Snider works recruiting homeless and low income people to sell Megaphone Magazine, a twice-monthly street paper.

Next year the Poverty Olympics will be held to coincide with the 2010 Olympic Games - and the target of the message the next time Itchy, Creepy and Chewy lead a parade will be the world's media.


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