Mayoral homelessness debate a sham: DTES residents

Published in The Tyee | November 8, 2011 | Circulation: 200,000 unique monthly readers

As Mayor Gregor Robertson faced his main election opponent in a tense homelessness debate tonight, residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) in attendance called the debate a sham.

A dozen DTES residents, some homeless themselves, arrived with the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council, while at least 75 Occupy Vancouver attendees heckled both candidates as pro-development.

“I’m here because of social housing,” said Louie Alexander, who lives on a single resident occupancy apartment in the DTES. “I was homeless, and if they keep raising the rent I’m going to be homeless again.”

An hour before mayoral candidates Suzanne Anton and Gregor Robertson prepared to spar over homelessness tonight, two separate groups – one of Downtown Eastside residents, another from Occupy Vancouver – protested that the debate excluded their voices.

Roughly 100 people chanted, “Housing is a human right, we will not give up the fight” as they marched to St. Andrew’s United Church, where the November 19 election campaign’s two main contenders went head to head over affordable housing policies.

“If this were a real democracy and a real debate, then they’d have people at the table who would speak to the issues of homelessness themselves – from experience,” said Eve Wilensky, who set up the Facebook group for the event. “We want to participate in direct democracy and show that the people have woken up.”

“We’re here to take back all the power for all the people.”

Another man, who said he is homeless and camps on city property, said he opposed both mayoral candidates but felt that Occupy Vancouver did not represent his needs. When it came time for questions from the audience, Occupy demonstrators cheered loudly when several people from the Downtown Eastside asks questions critical of the current city council’s development and Aboriginal policies, and shouted over Robertson and Anton’s responses.

Many in the crowd expressed frustration with the disruption, and one former Occupy Vancouver organizer however saying heckling was unproductive and alienating. Min Reyes, who was part of organizing the founding of the tent city on October 15, implored demonstrators to be strategic and adopt a code of conduct.

“I believe #occupyvancouver lacks strategic goals & targets. Without a clear strategy, it only causes popular discontent & fear,” Reyes tweeted.

One independent city council candidate, Lauren Gill, urged the crowd to ensure Downtown Eastside residents got priority seating at the event. Also in the crowd was mayoral candidate Darrell Zimmerman, who is campaigning under the name “Saxmaniac” and advocates free transit and social housing policies.

The march took over the street marching to the debate venue, where a small number of police watched from the sidelines. As of press time, no incidents were reported.

“The people making decision are those least affected,” said demonstrator Erin Innes. “The people most affected have the least say in those decisions – that’s not a democracy.”

Demonstrators vowed to enter the building.

“It’s a public debate – everyone’s allowed to go.”

To see housing and homelessness platform for Vision Vancouver click here, and for the Non-Partisan Association’s, here.

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