The Olympics and the Homeless
Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown Eastside neighborhood represents that group this year. As usual, the Olympics mean a large-scale cleanup of the host city, and such cleanups always involve dealing with the homeless. In the weeks leading up to the Games, there have been reports of massive sweeps of homeless people into shelters – many of which are considered unsafe options by the homeless population. And the city council has proposed removing up to 450 dumpsters, which contain meals and sustenance for the city’s poorest citizens.
It has been worse, of course: In Beijing as many as 1.5 million people lost their homes as part of the Olympic construction projects. China denies the claims, but human rights groups across the globe recorded numerous instances of abuse.
Chinese demolition groups at times destroyed buildings with no warning – a family would arrive home to find out they were homeless. Buildings marked for demolition were in some cases turned into slums, with windows and doors removed and debris scattered inside the buildings while the people continued to dwell inside. And some residents even complained of thugs hired by the government’s demolition crews who would harass them at night, physically attacking them and defecating on the property of those citizens who wished to stay in their homes.
Another cause for displacement is the rise in rent around the time of the Olympics. A 40% increase in rent in Sydney caused what is now known as the “Olympic effect” – the poor were not displaced purposefully, but had to move nonetheless.
A couple of years ago, I went with friends to Atlanta to work with a homeless mission there. The head of the mission was giving us a bus tour near the Olympic Stadium, and showed us some gorgeous building fronts to our right. Right behind those buildings, though, were the people with whom he works every day. Atlanta had put up a façade to cover the homeless, and in doing so, had destroyed even more homes.
About 30,000 people were displaced in Atlanta during the Olympics, and about 2,000 public housing units were demolished. And there, just as in many cities that have hosted large-scale events, the areas that were once made to look perfect have become worse than they were before the Games. In Vancouver, for example, the homeless now congregate beneath the World of Science, which was built as part of Expo 86.
In all, over the last twenty years, an estimated 2 million people minimum have been displaced because of the Olympics.
If your city has ever hosted a large event or built a big arena, what is it like around that area now?
In Memphis, where I’m from, they have three large arenas: the Mid-South Coliseum, the Pyramid, and the FedEx Forum. The latter is new and beautiful, but the former two have grown old and unused. They are all three in very poor neighborhoods, so it would probably be fair to say that none of them have brought about any serious gentrification.
What can be done to help rebuild areas in our own cities that are set aside or ignored after large events?
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside district is having a festival for homeless people that will take place during the Olympics. It’s called the Oasis Winter Festival, and will include food and live entertainment. It is the subject of a lot of controversy, and you can read more about it here in an article that came out during its development stage.
Also, the following film from one year ago shows what happens in Vancouver if a homeless person leaves their things to use the restroom or grab some food. The man at the end was later found out to be named Dennis. He told the filmmaker that he routinely has his possessions thrown out by the city.