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Olympic clean up

May 28 2009
How will Canada‘s homeless cope with the 2010 Winter Olympics? How will Canada's homeless cope with the 2010 Winter Olympics? In the run-up to next year's Winter Olympic Games, Vancouver's authorities have confirmed that homeless people living within the Olympic zones will be removed by police, and arrested if they refuse to leave. But despite this harsh approach, officers insist the homeless will be given space in shelters or help to go wherever they want. "The City of Vancouver and Vancouver police will work with homeless people either to help them find shelter or - if they don't wish to be sheltered - to help them relocate," says police chief Steve Sweeney. "Those who refuse to move, may be arrested." It is estimated that more than 1,200 people are sleeping on the streets of the city, the largest in western Canada. In recent months, police have been accused of giving tickets to homeless people more frequently for petty offences such as jaywalking. But Detective Constable Sweeney says police will not be getting any extra powers, and that there were no plans to sweep Vancouver's streets of marginalised people. "We will not be engaging in any kind of social cleansing," he says, referring to the brutal treatment of people before the games in previous host cities. The Olympic Games have a long legacy of land grabs and evictions of the poor, mentally ill, beggars and homeless, in order to present a sanitary facade for visitors during the games. A 2007 study by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions found that in every city it examined, the Olympic Games had become - accidentally or deliberately - a catalyst for mass impoverishment and forced evictions. This 'Olympic effect' has been witnessed across the world. "There is currently a multifaceted crisis in housing supply, particularly of affordable social housing. This has arisen from decades of the privatisation of the existing social housing stock combined with gross under-funding of new building," says Martin Slavin, of the Olympic watch group Games Monitor. "Into this crisis comes the Olympic games 'gentrification' effect to compound the crisis at the poor end." As far back as 1988 in Seoul, more than two million people were driven from their homes to make way for the Olympics. In the South Korean capital, more than 720,000 people were thrown out of their homes as 48,000 buildings were destroyed. Tenants were evicted without notice and left to freeze on the streets; some survived by digging caves by motorway embankments. Homeless people, those with mental health problems, alcoholics and beggars were rounded up and put into prison camps, and those who tried to resist were beaten by thugs and imprisoned. Four years later in Barcelona, the Spanish government used the Olympics as an opportunity to 'cleanse' the city of beggars, prostitutes, Roma communities, hawkers and street sellers. Around 400 poor and homeless people were subjected to "control and supervision." Furthermore, house prices around Olympic zones rose by 240 per cent between 1988 and 1992; as a consequence, an estimated 59,000 people were driven out of the city because of rising house prices caused by the Olympics. Similarly, the 1996 games in Atlanta - one of the most segregated cities in America - saw many homeless people arrested and locked up without trial until the games were over, with 9,000 being arrested in the year before the games. Police issued "quality of life ordinances" which criminalised people who begged or slept rough. Around 30,000 mainly African- American families were also evicted from their homes, as developers demolished large housing projects. In Sydney in 2000, there was much less persecution of the poor but there were still mass evictions from boarding houses and rented homes; and in 2004 in Athens, the Olympics were used as an excuse to evict 2,700 Roma, even from places where no Olympic developments were planned. In Beijing last year, 1.5 million people were displaced for the games. Like the people of Seoul, they have been threatened and beaten if they resisted. Housing activists were imprisoned and beggars, hawkers and vagrants were rounded up and sentenced to "re-education" through labour. In London, the mayor Boris Johnson has stood by an ambitious pledge made by his predecessor Ken Livingstone to reduce rough-sleeping in the capital to zero by 2012. Although we are still three years away from the games, councils are under pressure to meet government targets and likewise police forces are also under pressure to get rough sleepers off the streets. Operation Poncho, the controversial practice of "wetting down" is still running in the City of London by the City of London Corporation, in partnership with the police and homelessness charity Broadway.
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