Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Vancouver's poor - dark side of the Games

VANCOUVER — Canada is spending over two billion dollars on the Winter Olympics but just steps away from the venue for the opening ceremony sits one of the country's most notorious slums where drug addiction and prostitution are rife.

The scenes of homelessness and the squalor of Downtown Eastside are not the images Olympic organizers want visitors to leave with.

But the neighbourhood's close proximity to BC Place Stadium where the Olympic cauldron will be lit on Friday, will make it hard for visitors to miss.

"The biggest misconception is people think it could not happen to them," said Mark Townsend, who runs a non-profit group for the homeless.

"We have daughters of university professors, former professionals. Mental illness could strike any of us."

The homeless, prostitutes, addicts, Native Canadians and the poor all share the cramped area where hundreds of people die of drug overdoses every year.

In the 1990s, it was the killing field for serial killer Robert Pickton.

The Vancouver pig farmer was charged by police with murdering more than two dozen women, mostly prostitutes and drug addicts from Vancouver's east end. He initially told police he killed 49 women and in 2007, he was convicted of killing six women and was sentenced to life in prison.

"It could happen again," Townsend said. "We are dealing with a group of people that have been marginalized."

Vancouver's red-light districts have about 500 prostitutes, many of whom are Native women from small western Canadian towns.

There are about 18,000 people living in the east end with about 10 percent being Natives, who make up just two percent of Canada's overall population.

The area is also home to the only legal drug injection site in North America where addicts can go and inject their own drugs with a nurse on hand in case they overdose.

"I have to be a good judge of character," said Jennifer Gravelle, who works as a prostitute. "I care about my safety. I just want to eventually get out of this area and get a good house."

Leonard (he didn't want to give his family name) has lived in the area for four decades and says it is getting worse.

"In the last six years it has become a crack haven," said the former vending machine operator.

"You see young girls who have beautiful faces and it doesn't take long for their looks to change once they get into the heavy drugs. Why waste money on the Olympics? Clean up the community and help these people."

In the run up to the Games, the government poured money into housing, cleaning up the rubbish in the back alleys and putting fresh coats of paint on some of the more historic old hotels.

But Townsend wonders what it will be like when the Olympic tourists have gone.

"The Olympics are only a few weeks," said Townsend, who grew up in Bristol, England but moved to Vancouver 19 years ago.

"We are worried about the long-term. When the media leaves will all the hotels the government bought to refurbished be shut down? Will the emergency shelters and temporary housing remain open?"

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