Poverty activists urge Canada to restart social housing program

21:08, February 08, 2010      

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Less than a week to go before the start of the Olympic Winter Games, social activists put Canada's homelessness problem in the spotlight on Sunday with the staging of the "2010 Poverty Olympics" in Vancouver.

With nearly 1,000 people in attendance at an event on the city's downtown eastside, considered to be the poorest district in the country, the mock Olympics marked the return of the "2010 Poverty Torch Relay" to Vancouver after a three-week tour around British Columbia (BC).

While Poverty Olympics mascots -- Itchy the Bedbug, Creepy the Cockroach and Chewy the Rat -- entertained those assembled at the carnival-like "Games," Jean Swanson, coordinator of the Carnegie Community Action Project, a social advocacy group, said not enough has been done by governments at either the federal, provincial or civic levels to end the poverty cycle.

Last year, the New Democratic Party, the main opposition to BC's ruling Liberal Party, estimated there were as many as 15,000 homeless people in the province.

"We still have thousands of homeless people in BC, probably a quarter-million across the country," Swanson said. "We still have in Vancouver 25 percent of the people living in poverty. It should be ended. Rich people are getting richer. There's no real excuse for such a rich country to have so much poverty and homeless."

With more than 6 billion Canadian dollars (5.58 billion U.S. dollars) being spent to stage the Winter Olympics that is to start Friday, the particular issue to the anti-poverty activists is the promises made by BC government and Vancouver's Olympic organizing committee (Vanoc) in their bid to secure the games.

During the bid process, an "inner-city inclusive commitment statement" was signed after civil society organizations had raised worries about housing impacts and civil liberties impacts, something that traditionally happens in large events such as the Olympics.

Once the bid was won over Pyeongchang of South Korea and Salzburg of Austria, civil society organizations in Vancouver were essentially sidelined, said Am Johal. "Their (Vanoc) home housing table recommended 3,200 units (of social housing) to be built. We will probably see a fraction of those units actually built. Probably a few hundred will be built, less than 500."

As chair of the Impact on Communities Coalition, a group which lobbies the national government to reinstate a national social housing program that was abolished in the early 1990s, Johal said the official number, although thought to be higher, lists 2,800 homeless people in metro Vancouver. About 32 percent are aboriginals and 45 percent women.

While Canada has had some social housing programs since the end of World War II, the period between the early 1970s and early 1990s was a golden period when it was one of the best in the world. In 1988, 22,000 units of social housing were built nationwide, according to Raise the Rates, a group that lobbies to raise state welfare rates, in 2002, the number was 1,500 units.

"When that (federal social housing program) was cut, homelessness started to increase across the country. Now there are 200,000 and 300,000 homeless people across the country," Johal said. "Without non-market housing investment, it's very difficult to deal with the issue of affordability, particularly in urban centers."

Last month, the average price of a single-family home in Vancouver, a land-scarce area surrounded geographically by mountains, water and the U.S. border, hit a record high of 788,499 Canadian dollars (733,304 U.S. dollars), according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.

To help those in need, Johal's group, along with other anti-poverty activists, is proposing a "1 percent solution" for social housing.

Symbolizing 1 percent of the federal budget in Canada, the figure would be just over 2 billion dollars (1.86 billion U.S. dollars) annually with matching funding from the respective provinces. The municipalities would usually provide land as part their contribution.

While the BC government has worked to help the homeless in purchasing and refurbishing 20 old hotels and rooming houses, mainly in Vancouver's downtown center, as well as providing some sites for social housing, at a national level, Libby Davies has been campaigning for a long-term housing plan.

As a federal member of parliament, Davies has introduced a housing bill in parliament in Ottawa which has now passed its second reading and will be going back for a third reading.

Despite the efforts of governments at the provincial and civic levels, she said one of the key reasons existing social housing initiatives have failed was the federal government has not participated in a long-term program.

"That was one of the serious fundamental flaws when the federal government opted out of social housing in the 1990s; under a Liberal government we see the devastation of what's happened," Davies said.

"The federal government absolutely has to make this a priority. We have seen sort of patchwork programs; they have had some money for homelessness, but every year you have to fight to get it renewed. There's no long-term social housing, affordable housing strategy in Canada. We are the only industrialized country not to have one. There is an impact to that, there's a cause to that. We see that in communities like the downtown eastside."

With homelessness also a problem in Toronto, the country's largest city, in addition to smaller centers in this nation of just over 32 million people, Davies said social housing was something that needed to be addressed "right across the board."

"To me, providing money for social housing is a very strong and sound social and economic investment. It creates good jobs. We can use Canadian lumber, you know, instead of shipping it elsewhere. We can build good housing. Why isn't it a priority? Why aren't governments addressing this, particularly the federal government?"

Garvin Snider, a local resident of Vancouver's downtown eastside and an anti-poverty activist, summarizes that there are many misconceptions about the poor, such as they don't pay taxes. But the part-time security guard who patrols the streets of the city's Chinatown, said like everyone, he does pay tax.

"Many of us are considered working poor. We do work. We do pay our income tax. We are law-abiding citizens and contributors to our community. If social housing is provided by the federal government, we could contribute more," he said.

"We would like to see our federal government step forward and implement that (national social housing program) again, start to show that our Canadian society really does care about the marginalized, the poor, those in that social situation." he added.

Source: Xinhua
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