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Vancouver City Council voted yesterday to rezone land along East Hastings St. for condo development, a decision that community activists are speaking against.

The site is located at 955 East Hastings street. The Wall Financial Corporation has proposed a 12-storey mixed-use project for the site.

“It provides desperately needed social housing, below market rental, light industrial, retail which, thanks to the motion today, could include a much needed grocery,” said Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer via email.

The site was zoned as M-1 industrial land, but council’s vote today rezoned it as CD-1, or comprehensive development area.

As per Wall Financial’s plan for the development, there will be commercial/retail and light industrial at street level. It will contain 352 housing units with 23 units aimed at people on social assistance.

Anti-gentrification advocates speak out

However, the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP), an activist group, is opposed because they see it as the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside (DTES).

“We’re opposed to this project that it will have the same effect that Woodward’s had on the western part of the Downtown Eastside,” said Ivan Drury, researcher/organizer with CCAP.

Drury said that only 7% of the social housing in the development will be rented at welfare rates. While city council upholds that the development is creating social housing, Drury said that the planned development threatens 154 current SROs in the area through gentrification of the neighbourhood.

However, Councillor Reimer said there has been an interim rezoning policy for the area since March 28, 2012, and there will likely be a new rezoning policy in the near future as a result of citizen-led groups CCAP and Local Area Planning Process (LAPP).

“With the policies this development was approved under no longer in place, and control over the future policies directly in the hands of the community, it’s not possible to spark development. The planning process is the signal property owners are waiting for, not this rezoning,” said Councillor Reimer.

Sex trade workers could be displaced to unsafe areas

Another issue CCAP has with the rezoning and future development is how it may displace sex trade workers who work in that area.

“The reason they’re down there is because there are no residents down there. They’ve been pushed there by police and by the judgmental gaze of homeowners,” said Drury. “It’s still not a safe place or an acceptable way for women to be working, but they’ve created a community and they look out for each other.”

“The motion passed by council asks staff to work with applicant at the design phase to ensure it is safe for existing sex trade in the area,” said Councillor Reimer.

There are some people who say the DTES would be better if it were gentrified. An article on Vancity Buzz from September 17 says, “The proposal, if approved, will solidify the gentrification that is already underway in the eastern edge of the DTES. It would be a shame if the neighbourhood opposition and/or city council got in the way of this development. It’s exactly what the neighbourhood needs at this point.”

CCAP challenges that thinking. Through interviewing over 1200 DTES residents, they found that the marginalized people who live there feel a sense of community that’s unique to the neighbourhood. Their sense of belonging is very important and needs to be protected.

“Out of violence they’ve created systems of care, camaraderie, and systems of support, and that’s something we need to protect,” said Drury. “If we lose it we’re losing the soul of the city.”

On Wednesday, I went to the City of Vancouver’s event Finding Home at St. Andrew’s-Wesley Church. The building itself was beautiful, gothic architecture with high ceilings and stained glass.

Me and two other classmates were able to (briefly) interview Jean Budden, chair of End Homelessness Now, Councillor Kerry Jang, and DTES resident Danse Crowkiller on camera. Since the footage was for a broadcasting class assignment, we were there to get in, get our shots, and get out. Kerry Jang had some really awesome things to say about acknowledging that the homeless are people, not statistics. He reminded me how important putting a human face on an issue is.

The short interviews went great, and I got inspired to stick around and see all the speakers at the event. I was without a camera or recorder, which was a bad call on my part.

After dashing out to grab my notepad from my classmate’s car, I hurried back to the church for the rest of the event.

Patrick Oleman was the first guest I saw speak. He’s an aboriginal DTES resident. He’s been playing street soccer for three years, recently ran a marathon and is currently training for another. His success story was quite remarkable. After living in the Stanley Hotel for 7 years, he got into playing soccer on the Vancouver Street Soccer League, and eventually had the opportunity to go to Brazil with the team.

He shared a story from that time: before he departed with his team, his uncle held a prayer and granted a sacred feather to the team – he told them to find someone who inspires the entire team and give them the feather, explaining its significance in their culture. While in Brazil, they were playing a pick up game and a 10 year old boy joined in. He ended up beating a few people on the team, and his drive and spirit inspired them so they gave the feather to him.

“I’m trying to represent the ‘hood and Native people as best I can – I’m getting there,” he said.

Andrew Clark from the At Home/Chez Soi speakers’ bureau was the next who really struck me. He was another success story of someone who once had all the odds against him. He was either in prison or some other government institution from the age of 11 to 41.

The At Home/Chez Soi program is a housing-first approach to helping solve the homelessness issue run by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. By addressing basic needs like shelter, other issues can then be focused on and the root of homelessness can be addressed.

Now you’re not spending every waking hour in a line and another line,” said Andrew. He said that once you’re sheltered indoors, and that worry is no longer on your mind, you have time to notice your other issues such as any mental illnesses. It can overwhelming and it’s the first time you have time to cope with what you were too distracted to notice before.

“Success is an individual thing … I’m a success because this is the longest I’ve ever been out of prison in my life.”

Andrew went on to say, “Housing is a right, not a privilege.” People began to clap.

“It shouldn’t be something you have to fight for,” he said as the entire church erupted into applause.

Bill Quinn’s video presentation affected me the most on an emotional level. I can’t do his story justice through text. He is an Aboriginal elder from Oppenheimer Park, and his humility and wisdom moved me to tears.

He described how it felt to be ripped from his grandmother on a reservation at the age of 7 to be placed in a residential school. How he lost so much of his culture and identity, and how the schools focused so much on reforming their behaviour and Catholic prayer rather than “teaching things worth anything.”

“My life was messed up instead of getting any education.”

At 17 or 18 he was already living on the streets. However, he is now clean and sober from drink and drugs. He’s the only of his friends from residential school who has survived so long.

Far from being angry at the injustices in the world, Bill Quinn’s attitude was overwhelmingly humble and forward-looking. His demeanour expresses a faith in humanity and an outlook that’s positive and hopeful for change.

When asked how he keeps positive, Quinn recalled advice his grandmother taught him.

“Honesty. Be honest, be truthful, and things will work out fine.”

Another highlight for me was seeing one of my instructors, Alexandra Samur, along with Jackie Wong talk about their DTES Community Journalism 101 course. Someone from the course got up to read one of his pieces about waiting in the welfare line that ran in Megaphone magazine.

At the end of the night, heading home, I felt more inspired than I ever have to do something in the community to help. I pondered why this was so – it’s not as though I have been unaware until now.

I came back to what Councillor Jang had said earlier, and I realized it’s something I’ve been taught in journalism school, too –

putting a human face on an issue is the best thing you can do to make people care.

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