Homeless stage an Olympic torch relay to raise awareness of plight

20:11, January 18, 2010      

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Just four days before the Olympic torch enters British Columbia, Canada, on the homestretch to the opening of the Winter Games on February 12, homeless activists in the host city Vancouver are vowing to tell the world of their poverty-stricken plight.

With the Olympic torch relay currently traveling across Alberta and scheduled to cross into British Columbia on Thursday, homeless advocacy groups on Sunday launched the 2010 Poverty Olympics Torch Relay in downtown Vancouver to raise awareness about the "devastating reality" of poverty and homelessness.

While the three-week relay is symbolic and there is no physical torch or run, the exercise will take in a minimum of 18 cities and towns around British Columbia and return to Vancouver on February 7.

It is estimated there are up to 15,000 homeless in British Columbia, a figure Jean Swanson calls "shameful" for one the country's richest provinces.

Standing in front of the Olympic countdown clock that displays 26 days to go before the opening ceremony, Swanson, coordinator of the Carnegie Community Action Project, a social advocacy group on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the poorest neighborhood in the country, said while British Columbia bills itself in advertisements and its license plates as "the best place on Earth", the western province clearly has problems.

She said with British Columbia having the highest poverty rate in Canada for six consecutive years and no poverty reduction strategy, the number of homeless would keep rising if drastic measures were not taken.

"We're hoping the world can shame Canada because it is such a wealthy country. At the same time it has so much poverty and homelessness," she said.

"We're trying to pressure our government and we're hoping other countries will too when they see the situation here."

On the Downtown Eastside, the extent of the homelessness is immediately evident. On East Hastings, one of Vancouver's main thoroughfares, hundreds of homeless, many with mental illness or dependency problems, squat in front of abandoned buildings on a street where prostitutes and drug dealers freely ply their trade around the inexpensive rooming houses and beer parlors.

The HIV rate in the area is about 30 percent, according to Poverty Olympics organizers, about the same as the African nation of Botswana.

Swanson explained some of the problems with the growing army of homeless stemmed from the fact that Canada was the only G8 country without a national housing program.

She said since 1993 the federal government had virtually stopped funding new social housing. In addition, the rules for receiving welfare (about 610 Canadian dollars monthly) were changed in 2002.

"Even if you were in dire need, unless you can prove a few things that a lot of people can't prove, they can't get on welfare. They have no money for rent.

"Right after that, homelessness doubled. Our social programs have also been gutted. Welfare rates have about $250 less purchasing power than they did in 1980. The minimum wage (8 Canadian dollars) is the lowest in Canada and we have the highest cost of living."

With the City of Vancouver recently opening seven temporary shelters, all are currently at full capacity and are scheduled to close at the end of the April.

"It's hiding the homeless (for the Olympics) instead of housing them," Swanson said. "If you are a homeless person, it's better to have them than not. But that's what the Olympics have spawned and the funding runs out in April."

While Vancouver's hosting of the Olympics has not been popular with all city's residents, many see the more than 6 billion Canadian dollars being spent to stage the Games as a frivolous waste; the money could be better used elsewhere.

Trish Garner of Raise the Rates, an advocacy group which lobbies for increasing welfare payments, called the staggering 900 million dollars budgeted for security for the Games as completely irresponsible.

"That could have built 5,000 units of social housing. We desperately need that. We have maybe 10,000 to 15,000 homeless in BC right now, 200,000 homeless across the country. We desperately need that money to be used in a more effective way," she said.

She stressed, however, that any future rallies during next month's Games would be peaceful.

"We've stressed that our intent is not to disrespect the athletes, or the essence of the Olympics. We just want to say the governments (federal, provincial and civic) need to shift their priorities.

"They've said if they want to, they can do something. We want them to spend more on social services and do more for the homeless and people in poverty," she said.

Source: Xinhua
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