The right to the city: Interview with Carnegie Community Action Project’s Jean Swanson

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Jean Swanson is the co-writer of Carnegie Community Action Project’s new report, Assets to Action:  Community Vision for Change in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the author of Poor Bashing:  The Politics of Exclusion.  Am Johal interviewed her in Vancouver.

Am Johal: The Carnegie Community Action Project has been organizing in the Downtown Eastside for some time.  The gentrificiation pressures have continued to escalate.  What were the main findings of your recent report? 

Jean Swanson: When we asked residents what the unsafe or uncomfortable places in the DTES were, they mentioned places that are symbols of gentrification:  the new Woodwards, Gastown, “condos for the rich types,” displacing people with private security guards, security guards harrassing people and moving them out of stores.  In fact gentrification emerged as one of the two biggest issues that made people feel unsafe and uncomfortable.  The other issue was police brutality, harrassment and ticketing.

AJ: You followed an asset based approach to looking at community solutions.  How long did the report take to write and what process did you follow? 

JS: We began by doing visioning workshops with about 300 people at 15 different community hubs.  This was followed by a questionnaire to 655 people, asset mapping workshops with 300 people at 23 community hubs, a reflection committee of mostly mappers to help us draw out the themes from the mapping, and 3 days of planning with 44 community leaders.  The results of the visioning and questionnaire were written up in a report called “Nothing about us without us.”  The mapping was written up in “Our place and our words.”  The planning days process was written in “Seeing it our way.”  Then we got community feedback on “Seeing it our Way” and incorporated it in the final Vision, called “Assets to Action, Community Vision for Change in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.”  The whole thing took about two years and involved 1200 mostly low income residents.

AJ: What is your view of how each of the three levels of government have been doing related to policies in the Downtown Eastside?

JS: The city government is working on getting housing but not hard enough.  They are emphasizing ending street homelessness, not getting housing built.  They need to buy lots in the DTES for housing so we can say to the province and feds, “we have land and now we need you to come up with the money for building the housing.” The City also needs to use its planning and zoning powers to stop gentrification and market condos in the area until we get 5000 units of social housing.  CCAP is calling on them to buy 5 lots a year for the next ten years.   They are balking at this but we are going to keep up the pressure. They are also planning to allow more towers in the DTES which we want to stop. The City has called on the province and feds to adopt a poverty reduction plan which is good.

JS: The province isn’t showing any signs of funding any more housing beyond what is already planned or under construction, about 400-500 units in the DTES.  These units were promised in 2007 and some probably won’t be ready until 2013.  When it takes 6 years from announcement of new housing to moving in day, you know you have to start working now for housing in 2014 and beyond and the province is not doing this.  The province is also responsible for abysmally low welfare rates and minimum wages that are keeping DTES residents and tens of thuosands of others in dire poverty.

The feds need to adopt a national housing strategy that funds 30,000 new units of housing a year for low income people, and we need a drug policy from then that is based on health and human rights principles rather than vengeance.  Our Vision calls for drug treatment on demand, more harm reduction services and eventually, replacement of the present illegal drug market with a legal and regulated one.

AJ: Leading up to the 2010 Olympics, there was alot of media interest for several years.  The province purchased SRO hotels and now 14 sites are also being built.  I’m sure most people consider this to be too little too late given the fact the province used to build 1,200 units annually and that an inner-city inclusive commitment statement was signed.  What strategies will the Carnegie Community Action Project use to keep homelessness, housing and poverty issues on the public agenda? 

JS: We want the city to buy 5 lots a year for housing in the DTES, and we will continue to push the province for funds.  They have a $250 million Housing Endowment Fund that they refuse to spend on housing, which is obscene, since we are in the middle of a housing crisis. We continue to work with other groups like the Red Tent campaign for a National Housing Strategy and for passage of Bill 304, introduced by our Member of Parliament, Libby Davies.  We’ll continue working, especially with our homeless members, to draw attention to the need for housing.

What are some of your specific policy recommendations to protect the low income community in the Downtown Eastside?

We have 12 key actions: Build social housing, tackle systemic poverty, stop gentrification, improve safety, improve health services, support and fund DTES arts and culture, develop an ecoomy that serves and employse local residents, ensure public spaces are public, keep out towers over 10 stories unless they are for social housing, involve DTES resdients in decisions about the neighbourhood, attract more children, create a DTES image that honours and respects low income residents

AJ: The relationship between community and different levels of government has always been heated.  Since the end of the Vancouver Agreement, there have been few tables established to work across jurisdictions between the three levels of government and agencies like the Vancouver Police Department and the health board.  Would a new initiative that has real community involvement like this work again? 

JS: CCAP and DTES residents want residents to drive future work in the DTES, not agencies, groups without residents boards, etc.

AJ: The four pillar approach was a great plan, but it was never implemented.  Can this plan still be adopted? 

JS: Too much money is being spent on enforcement to the detriment of the other pillars of harm reduction, prevention and treatment.  Ending poverty, displacement and colonization would do a lot to help prevent drug addiction.  In our consultation with 1,200 residents, they said a big problem in the community is “forcing drug users outside and criminalizing them.”  They suggested more voluntary treatment on demand, safe injection sites and smoke rooms in the DTES and throughout the city, more harm reduction services and eduction, more healing centres to get at the root of problems ad ending the black market for drugs.  One of the recommendations of the vision is to “replace the current illegal drug market with a regulated legal market bsed on public health and human rights principles.”

AJ: Anything else?

JS: Our Vision is a declaration that the DTES low income community has a right to exist in Vancouver and to seek improvements for itself.  We propose that it be the foundation and guide for future development in the DTES and will seek to work wiht the City, landowners, community organizations, agencies, businesses, and residents to that end.  The most important issue in the Vision is to get safe, secure, permanent and adequate housing for people who are homeless and living in atrocious hotel rooms and rooming houses.