Anne-Marie Monks, a 62-year-old homeless woman, recently had a tantalizing offer of a free trip away from the grittiest streets of Vancouver. Her welfare officer said she could have a bus ticket to visit her daughter in Kamloops.
Good offers are as rare as three hot meals in her neighbourhood. But Ms. Monks declined. "It was a one-way ticket," she said.
"This wasn't a visit, it was telling me to go away and never come back."
Sending the homeless out of town might not be official policy, but with the 2010 Olympics looming, some worry it will be the ticket to cleaning up the Dante-like stretch of Vancouver known as the Downtown Eastside.
Every major city in Canada has destitute people, but nowhere are they concentrated in such a harrowing display of human desperation as in Vancouver, where a dense neighbourhood of junkies, streetwalkers and mentally ill people openly challenges British Columbia's licence-plate slogan, "The Best Place on Earth." The area is a 10-minute stroll from the site designated as the Olympics' international media centre.
With the clock ticking down to Feb. 12, 2010, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell this week assured reporters at the Beijing Olympics that Vancouver's Downtown Eastside would be a different place by the time the Winter Games start.
Mr. Campbell set out a formidable challenge with a short deadline for a neighbourhood that is well known as Canada's poorest postal code.
But if he falls short, it will not be for lack of trying, provincial and municipal politicians and government staff said this week.
A massive investment has been made in the past two years to break the grip of addiction and homelessness on thousands in British Columbia. The impact is expected to reverberate across the province, but the final measure will be taken in the Downtown Eastside.
Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan said the city is in the golden age of social housing. "We are seeing more investment in social and supportive housing than ever in the history of the city."
He cautioned not to expect a significant demographic shift. "The Downtown Eastside will be for many years a place you find people of low incomes," he said.
But he believes the clusters of addicts, mentally ill people and the homeless will fade away. "There has been an effort to keep all the social problems in one neighbourhood, and I do not think that serves the people who have those problems very well," he said. "We find that, when they can move outside the Downtown Eastside, a lot of problems go away."
Echoing a recent study that found that those who moved out of the Downtown Eastside reported a significant decrease in unstable housing and heroin and cocaine injection, Mr. Sullivan indicated he was confident that a surge in social housing, new mental health facilities and treatment programs in Vancouver - and beyond - will bring results.
The Downtown Eastside is a world of misery crammed into 10 blocks. The local amenities include a 24-hour drive-thru drug market, lanes where addicts openly inject drugs, and dealers who work in view of the police station. Homeless people sleep on the sidewalk, in doorways and in Oppenheimer Park, a few blocks from Hastings Street, where a tent city sprouted in mid-June.
Two days after Mr. Campbell was grilled in Beijing about Vancouver's homelessness problem, authorities dismantled the tents and offered rooms in residential hotels. Yesterday, crews were picking up litter in the park. No sign of the tent city remained.
Police said they acted in co-operation with B.C. Housing and welfare officials. "When you start having numbers of people camping out, you start moving into personal safety issues," said Constable Jana McGuinness of the Vancouver police. "Before anyone could be harmed, a solution - even short-term - needed to be found."
But critics said the park was a political embarrassment. The homeless people there bypassed those who have waited for housing for months. "It was politically motivated," said Vancouver Park Board commissioner Spencer Herbert. "It was a public-relations disaster to have 40 people in tents just a couple of blocks from GM Place, where Olympics events will be happening. The timing is very curious, with [Mr.]Campbell getting nailed about the homeless. I think they decided they needed to get the problem 'disappeared.'" B.C. Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman insisted the government does not intend to clean up the neighbourhood by handing out one-way bus tickets. No one is going to be forced to do anything, he said. "No one is being pushed out of any area because of the Olympics."
When asked about the offers of one-way tickets out of town, he said that the government intends to ensure that people have options. "Certainly you cannot handle all their addiction and mental health issues … in the Downtown Eastside. Some people would do better if they were given opportunities. We are not going to take them and force them to go anywhere. But certainly the options have to be there for them," he said.
Some people said they believe they would be better off closer to their family. "We're certainly open to helping anyone who wants to do that."
Mr. Coleman said his ministry grappled with housing issues for a year after he was appointed in 2005, and did not start with the Olympics in mind. "We're looking at the entire province, not just the Downtown Eastside, when we're looking at housing," he said.
The first step was rent assistance for the working poor and seniors. They then looked at how to bring housing together with services for addicts, the homeless and mentally ill people.
The initiatives were designed to move the homeless from temporary shelter to "supportive housing," which means medical and social services available in the same building, and then to subsidized, non-market housing.
Over the past 18 months, the B.C. government has announced funds for programs to connect street people with food, clothing and shelter where they are. It increased funding for beds in temporary shelters. Working with Vancouver and other municipalities, it unveiled plans for new social housing and renovations of skid-row residential units.
It revamped the model for providing social services, ensuring that those who move into the new housing will have support there to deal with issues ranging from nutrition to mental health to drug treatment.
And in an initiative that could reverse the trend to concentrate social services in the Downtown Eastside, the provincial government has moved aggressively to support social housing, drug treatment programs and mental health facilities outside the neighbourhood.
The province made an offer to municipalities: "We said, you guys find the land in the communities … and we are there with capital, and that's what we've been doing," Mr. Coleman said, adding that several communities have recognized dealing with their homeless population is not someone else's job.
The government also started buying social-housing properties three years ago. So far, it has bought 17 skid-row hotels and apartment buildings in Vancouver and 14 in Langley, Prince George and elsewhere. The housing will integrate shelter with mental health and addiction services. "If we can get somebody in an environment where there are other supports around them, their success rate is definitely higher than if we leave them isolated in the Downtown Eastside," Mr. Coleman said.
He said some results should be evident by the time the 2010 Olympics begin.
But Harsha Walia, project co-ordinator at the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, where Ms. Monks frequently spends the night, was skeptical. She said offers to leave town have increased, fuelling concerns that the homeless, already under harassment from police, will face added pressures as the Olympics approach.
"Women tell us about it every day," she said. "They're told they can get a one-way ticket, either to some other part of Canada or some other part of the province."