In Parliament of Whores, P. J. O’Rourke wrote about the homeless cleanup in Atlanta, Georgia, preparatory to the 1988 Democratic Convention. The police started hassling and arresting street people three or four days before the convention. Drifters were kicked out of the bus station and were not even allowed to reclaim their belongings from the storage lockers. In a park where scores of people experiencing homelessness usually slept, the sprinkler system was turned on at three in the morning.
The “Olympic effect” is notoriously destructive. In any city preparing to host a major event, old neighborhoods are obliterated and people are displaced. Less than 10 years after the Democratic Convention, the poor of Atlanta were hit again as the city geared up for the 1996 games. About 30,000 residents were displaced by construction work. In an Olympics-ready city, what isn’t torn down increases in value, as landlords evict longtime tenants to make room for wealthy visitors. And, of course, the people who were already homeless before all this started have to be dealt with.
In Atlanta, for instance, Mary Beadnell reported that in the eight months leading up to the Games, 9,000 people were arrested for begging and loitering, and others were moved more than a hundred miles away from the city. Likewise in Sydney, Australia, preparing for the 2000 Olympics, the police were able to clear the streets by charging people with causing a “social nuisance.” If not in the mood to make arrests, police can, at the very least, order people to “move on.” Beadnell wrote,
In addition, the government is planning to bus homeless people up to 200 kilometres from Sydney to Wollongong, Newcastle and the Blue Mountains, and house them in disused hospitals, government buildings and caravan parks, in an attempt to triple the amount of emergency housing during the Olympics.
In Beijing, China, it was reported that 300,000 dwellings were demolished to make way for the 2008 Olympics, and although the government claimed that only 6,000 residents had their lives disrupted by the bulldozing, the British press said hundreds of thousands were left homeless without compensation, and other estimates went as high as 1.5 million.
In the Canadian province of British Columbia, the city of Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics last year. This seriously impacted the people experiencing homelessness, especially the young. Jacqueline Kennelly, a sociological and anthropological researcher, intends to keep following up. Kennelly says the Olympics purge shoved many at-risk youth back into the worst part of the city, an area that some had succeeded in escaping from. She has already made two trips from Carleton University in Ottawa to investigate the lasting effects, and plans to go back:
It is the third round of interviews with more than 100 marginalized youth in Vancouver aimed at tracking their experiences before, during and after the Games… Kennelly’s subjects say an effort was made to push them out despite assurances from organizers it wouldn’t happen.
As always, the comments made by citizens on a news story provide fascinating details. One person recalls that the organizers had promised beforehand that the homeless and the poor would not be “removed from sight.” Another mentions that the housing units of the Olympic Village were supposed to be used afterward for the homeless, but are instead rented cheaply to police, firefighters, EMTs and other municipal employees. One person says he would rather support the homeless than subsidize taxpayer-funded athletes, whom he regards as no better than panhandlers. Some feel that such spectacles as the Olympics only serve to distract people from the underlying social problems.
Apparently, Vancouver is still recovering from the huge expense of being an “Owelympics” host city. Lies were told, promises were broken, taxpayers are angry, and the budget shortfall has affected the already inadequate social services for the homeless. “JosephThePoet” says,
Politicians can always find plenty of taxpayer money to build or rent expensive places for the game’s competitors to live for a short time but can never find a dime to pay for housing our brothers and sisters who cannot afford a place to live.
One person says the police crackdown gained momentum two or three years before the games, as officers aggressively harassed street people, confiscated their belongings, and stepped up the arrests for minor offenses. Private security guards dubbed “Downtown Ambassadors” are criticized even more harshly, and characterized as nasty, pernicious goons that the city should be ashamed of.
Another commentator says the cleanup started as far back as 2004, when people experiencing homelessness were given one-way bus tickets to the city of Victoria or to small towns in the interior:
I live in a small community in Central BC with no support system to aid the homeless. Before the Olympics we had no one sleeping out in minus 25 temperatures. During and now after the Olympics we have 30 homeless and we are scrambling to come up with social housing without any apparent or visible assistance from our Provincial or Federal Government.
Some comments are dismissive, like the one from a person whose nephew is a happy panhandler who actually feels sorry for his employed uncle. Some people urge the government to herd the homeless into boot camps, or at least work camps. They want to see programs similar to what both Canada and the United States set up during the Depression to accomplish public works. Some characterize the homeless as con artists or as rebellions teens who just don’t want to live by anybody’s rules.
Other citizens are much more sympathetic, and warn the hardhearted not to be so smug, because for every five economically stable families in Canada today, eight other families are in financial trouble. Some are very troubled by the judgmental attitude of self-righteous individuals who have no idea what they’re talking about, and who would probably be at a total loss to deal with the situation if they found themselves homeless.
One writer claims that the current government has an “undeniable track record of bullying and abusing the poor and downtrodden.” Another remembers working in downtown Calgary when that city was busy hiding the homeless for the duration of the 1988 Winter Olympics. Having known and been fond of many of these folks, “Gunner1954” writes,
Most were just trying their best with the deck they were dealt with. Most don’t want your sympathy either & couldn’t care less what you post here, but most were good people.
And some are very sensitive to the plight of people experiencing homelessness, especially the young, and speak out passionately:
If you have been beaten, exposed to alcohol/drug abuse, or sexually exploited in your own home regularly then speak up. Otherwise, keep it to yourself as you have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what some people go through in their homes… Tough love? Most of these kids have seen and experienced horrors that make the streets feel safer, how much tougher do they need it? Being homeless isn’t a crime but do you really think being beaten and sexually assaulted in prison will make them better able to function in your society?
In 2012, London, England, will host the Summer Olympics, and Jacqueline Kennelly has already gotten a head start on another study there, tracking the effects of the city’s preparations on homeless young people.
Source: “Parliament of Whores,” Google Books
Source: “Sydney’s homeless to be removed for Olympics,” World Socialist Web Site, 02/03/00
Source: “Homeless youth pushed out during Games,” CBC.ca, 02/13/11
Image by tuchodi, used under its Creative Commons license.