Four Pillars, No Roof
Anti-poverty demonstrators jeered Governor General Adrienne Clarkson in September as she made a well-guarded, carefully scripted promenade through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. According to a spokesperson for the Anti-Poverty Coalition, the group offered Her Excellency a guided tour of Canada’s poorest urban neighbourhood, but she chose instead the “sanitized” version offered by Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell.
Campbell didn’t deny protestors’ allegations that he had ordered the streets “cleaned up” of homeless people in preparation for Clarkson’s visit. “Was it hosed down?” said the Mayor. “Sure it was. When I was brought up, when people came to visit my house, I had to clean the house.”
Whatever the manner of Campbell’s upbringing, the methods typically employed by the Vancouver Police to “hose down” the Eastside have been called into question in the past. Last year they launched the charmingly-labeled “Operation Torpedo,” an all-out assault on the street-drug trade. According to the 2003 Human Rights Watch report, “Abusing the Abusers,” the operation has been characterized by police abuse of suspects, excessive use of force and unlawful search and seizure.
The report goes on to say that the crackdown exacerbated the public-health problems associated with drug use, including HIV/AIDS transmission and overdose. Addicts, whether driven into hiding or locked up on minor charges, were cut off from their health-care providers. Needle-exchange and street-outreach programs were unable to function. One witness put it very simply: “People are dying, and it’s harder for people to find them.”
Larry Campbell was elected on a promise to bring new life to the city’s Four Pillars “comprehensive” drug strategy. The four pillars in question are enforcement, treatment, prevention and harm reduction, but according to a 2003 British Columbia Medical Association report, “(T)here has been little action with regard to implementing the drug strategy, with the exception of the enforcement pillar, which was already in place.”
Now there’s a new initiative to “hose down” Vancouver’s streets, this one from the B.C. Liberals. True to pattern, the Safe Streets Act ultimately places responsibility for the social problems of homelessness and poverty in the hands of the police. Having gouged needed millions from social programs, Premier Gordon Campbell is now promising $30 million in new funds to municipalities, to be used for policing and “safer streets.” The act bans squeegeeing, makes it all but impossible to panhandle and in effect completes the Gordon Campbell government’s program to criminalize poverty.
Not everyone living and dying on the street is a drug addict: some people are born poor and never manage to get out, others have poverty thrust on them by age, mental illness, disability, or even divorce, and B.C. Liberal cuts to social programs have only served to make matters worse. It’s surprising how quickly destitution can sneak up with no maintenance enforcement program, no legal aid, no childcare, no women’s centres, no shelters. Thousands have already been cut off benefits by the notorious “two-year rule.” Many are left to choose between panhandling and crime. Now that panhandling is to become a crime, there will be nothing to choose.
The Governor General made no apology for her state visit to the dark side of Vancouver. “I’ve been coming down to these kinds of areas in every part of Canada in Halifax, in Yarmouth, in Saint John for five years,” she said. “This is what we do and this is what the Governor General should be doing.” Noblesse oblige, we suppose, but if she’d side-stepped the orchestrated tour of Eastside-lite, and chosen instead to make an impromptu late-evening visit, we might have taken the gesture more seriously.
Larry Campbell may have been a touch riled by the demonstrators who spoiled his ceremonial moment in the Sun. “I do whatever I want and if they don’t like it they can vote me out.” The Mayor might want to bear in mind that this is precisely the fate that awaits politicians who too blatantly betray their word. A promise to revitalize the Four Pillars program is not fulfilled by building one giant tower of law enforcement. For the growing numbers asleep on the rainy streets of Vancouver, there’s not much use in pillars without a roof.
Al Pope is a journalist and author who lives near Whitehorse. Al is the newest member of CDʼs Editorial Collective. His first novel, Bad Latitudes, is published by Turnstone Press.