VANCOUVER – City councillors aren’t jumping at a chance to swap their homes with a group of women living in poverty in the squalid Downtown Eastside.
Eight of 10 city councillors who reflected on an eight-week housing challenge put forth by the Power of Women Group in a July 2 letter declined to participate.
From what I gather, the other two were unreachable.
What was the exact nature of the challenge?
In the detailed letter, the group challenged Mayor Sam Sullivan and each councillor to live on $610, sleep in a single-room occupancy residence and give up driving their cars.
“We believe that politicians far too frequently make declarations and decisions about ‘resolving’ poverty, particularly in the Downtown Eastside, without having any idea about the painful reality of those who live in the DTES,” they wrote.
Refusal or excuses weren’t acceptable, they said, saying this would be a confirmation “that there is absolutely no political will to eliminate poverty.”
The 40-member group is still waiting for a response from council, said spokeswoman Harsha Walia of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. “Nobody’s called us,” Walia said. “We’ve left messages but they’re not returning our calls.”
The idea of politicians living in low-income housing is not new. Mayor Jane Byrne did it in Chicago in 1981, when she briefly moved into the Cabrini Green housing project. Since a politician is hardly likely to have the same experience as people forced to live in such conditions indefinitely, it’s surprising that the politicians were unwilling to swap houses, and in many cases said even a night would be too long.
And why might that be, you’re wondering? Bed bugs. The Downtown Eastside has probably been mentioned more than any other single neighborhood in any city, in this blog.
Bedbugs — common in low-cost SROs — are a big deterrent, said COPE councillor David Cadman. “It’s a huge challenge to go down there and get bedbugs,” Cadman said. “It’s not something I’m going to do, nor am I going to bring that home.”
NPA councillor Kim Capri said the wording of the letter was hurtful. “The ultimatum at the end, quite frankly, hurt me,” she said. The fact that she doesn’t intend to take up the group’s challenge doesn’t mean she doesn’t care, Capri said: “I think this council deeply cares and moreover, I think this council gets it.”
Vision Vancouver councillor Raymond Louie said he would consider the challenge if he didn’t have three children to consider. “I’m not going to be taking the kids to the streets of our city for eight weeks . . . .” Louie said.
And NPA councillor Peter Ladner said he doesn’t see the point of spending one night — let alone eight weeks — living in the conditions outlined by the challenge.
“I’m not sure what it would prove,” Ladner said. “I’m going to take this as an invitation to go down and see what’s going on.”
NPA councillors B.C. Lee and Suzanne Anton declined the challenge too. Anton said she was “interested in doing a night, but I don’t think I’d be interested in spending a long time.”
Vision councillors Heather Deal and George Chow both declined as well. “I sympathize with the women, their frustration of having to live in the Third World condition that is some of the SROs . . . . They are crying out for help,” said Chow.
Sullivan declined because, he said, he’s already familiar with housing issues. “Before becoming mayor — and after my accident — I collected welfare and spent several years in a social housing co-op and a paraplegic lodge in Vancouver’s east end. This experience has stayed with me.”
To be fair to the councillors, I would not want to move into the Downtown Eastside either. Or any other place I thought might have bed bugs.
Some of these politicians quoted above appear to understand and take the plight of local residents seriously, and so perhaps they will continue to work towards alleviating those conditions. We have to remember that Vancouver appears to be doing more about its bed bugs than any other city. It is not yet enough, by any means, but in many ways, it’s still admirable.
Still, I think extending this invitation was a good way for the group to get the politicians to seriously consider the conditions their neighbors and constituents had to live under. Perhaps it will spur on further change.