By Miro Cernetig, Vancouver SunFebruary 1, 2010
It doesn’t take long to get that nagging feeling something’s wrong inside the Olympics’ homeless pavilion — a.k.a. the Downside Eastside Connect, a provincial kiosk that opens today to purportedly show the world the facts of life in our downtown ghetto.
Perhaps it’s that staged, glossy photo at the door of the politicians — Housing Minister Rich Coleman and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson — smiling as they dig shovels into the ground to symbolize the construction of 14 social housing shelters. The caption carefully leaves out the fact these projects were started too late to be ready for the Olympics and are years away from completion.
Maybe what grates is those slick, large photo portraits of hand-picked inner-city residents whose stories of living on the streets are condensed into a few lines and conclude with plucky words of how their lives are now on hopeful trajectories.
Where things get totally strange, though, is at the back of the one-room pavilion. A large placard informs you a new library has been created at a nearby location for the Olympics.
But this is not a library of books. Rather what you get to check out, for 30 minutes at a time, is a real, live human being, one of many in a collection, from the Downtown Eastside. These “human books,” paid an honorarium for their services, will recite their stories about life in Vancouver’s ghetto.
It’s well-intentioned, I guess. It’s certainly preferable to putting the homeless into red tents during the Games, an exploitative stunt to get press dreamt up by the Pivot Legal Society.
Still, doesn’t a human library inevitably hark back to the last century, when explorers brought back human specimens as living museum exhibits? It’s sort of a silly device, too, like the notion behind Night At The Museum, the Hollywood film where the statues from the exhibits come to life after hours.
That’s what’s wrong with the homeless pavilion. It’s contrived and dumbed down. Nobody needs publicity shots of smiling politicians, pre-canned 200-word testimonials or human books to find out about life in the city’s poorest neighbourhood.
You just need to go outside.
The homeless and destitute still fill our streets. And they will be there in their unnatural habitat, whether you like it or not, for the world to see, during the Games.
They are a daily reminder our governments still have a long way to go in creating the social infrastructure to treat and house the city’s homeless, its mentally ill, its addicted and its just plain unfortunate.
Their presence is also evidence of miscalculation.
After a decade of planning and building the Olympics, a multibillion-dollar enterprise that has gone pretty much like clockwork, our leaders only started focusing on the homeless file in the past few years. It had begun to dawn on them it might make for an embarrassing backdrop for Vancouver.
Inside the homeless pavilion, however, you will find no discussion of this political failure. Nor will you find any exhibits telling the ghetto’s ugly truths: HIV infection rates that rival those of the developing world, continuing reports of missing women and the psychological scars inflicted by Vancouver’s homegrown serial killer, Robert (Willie) Pickton.
No, at its essence the homeless pavilion is what one expects from a government still dealing with a crisis: A public relations exercise. Its intent is to manage anyone who might leave the Olympic bubble and be shocked by the grinding poverty a few blocks from their luxury hotel.
But this spin kiosk won’t work.
For one thing, its location — in the courtyard of the new Woodward’s complex — means most media won’t ever find it. (Though the usual anti-Liberal, anti-gentrification protesters will. They are already planning their predictable protests for when it opens.)
Finally, the homeless pavilion is so heavy-handed, so relentlessly upbeat that any visiting reporter or dignitary who does stumble in will quickly sense they’ve entered a spin machine. It’ll be hard to fool them. After all, they just have to step out, walk a block or two and discover what has been, and remains, Vancouver’s greatest social failure.
Reposted from The Vancouver Sun