VANCOUVER On a cold night, with a hard rain falling and the city shaken by a dirty-water crisis, word begins spreading through the Downtown Eastside that another homeless woman has been raped.
That's when the occupation of the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre begins. Forty-two homeless, unnerved women seeking a haven crowd into the drop-in centre and sleep on the floors, under tables, curled up in chairs, without blankets. You can hear them coughing all night because most of the women, who have been sleeping in alleys, under bridges, in flop houses or in emergency shelters, are sick. They have gaunt faces, sunken eyes and a hunted look about them.
At a health centre on East Hastings Street, a nurse, explaining the frustrations of trying to find housing for dying patients, puts her face in her hands and weeps. Outside her office, John has parked a shopping cart on the sidewalk. It is covered with a blue-and-yellow striped blanket. Inside, it is lined with cardboard and old jackets. That's where his girlfriend Anita sleeps.
Near a deserted former rooming house a few blocks away, where defiant anti-poverty activists recently staged a squat to protest against the loss of social housing, a woman rants about living in a cheap hotel infested with bed bugs and rats.
"It's just a horror story. Big holes. Garbage. Rats. I see a bed bug. They come up through the cracks," Marianna says.
She is animated, and the closer we get to her hotel on East Hastings, the more excited she becomes. She gets in a shouting match with a man at the front desk when he says he can't leave his office to open the basement door for her. She wants to show me rats that live down there.
Instead, we go up to her small room, which contains a tiny kitchen and separate bathroom. An artist's easel is set up near her bed. She points to where she has seen cockroaches and where she has found rat droppings. She waves her arms, shouting, her eyes widening.
"Look! Look! Garbage!" she says, pointing out the kitchen-nook window to an inner space between two buildings where people have thrown piles of junk.In her bathroom, she points to the sink, stained brown.
"Look! Look! Filthy!" she shouts. There is a fleck of foam at the corner of her mouth.
I excuse myself politely, but firmly, pulling away as she clutches at my sleeve. On the sidewalk, I look back at the building which has no signs on its façade. Just another blank, skid-road hotel full of frantic people, bed bugs and rats. Those are the lucky ones. At least they have rooms.
Along the street here, and increasingly throughout Greater Vancouver's suburban cities, the homeless sleep wrapped in layers of blankets, up against fences, in church doorways and on sidewalks. You don't have to spend long in Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside, the poorest neighbourhood in the country, before you come across these Dickensian scenes.
Homelessness is a problem in every Canadian city, but in the Greater Vancouver Area, where there are now 2,174 people living on the street, including 22 children with their families, the tableau of poverty is laid out block after bleak block.
Here on the dead-end streets, where Canada's homelessness crisis takes on a shocking form and proportion, the problem has become impossible to ignore.
How did it get this way? How did this beautiful, laid-back city, where the climate is softened by winds from the South Pacific, become a place of such despair for so many?
The answer that emerges from interviews with poverty advocates, officials and front-line workers is disturbing. The homelessness crisis, which has become such a visual blight that it is hurting tourism and leading to convention cancellations, didn't befall the city like some kind of natural disaster. Instead, it was largely caused by government policy.
"It was absolutely created by government," says Jean Swanson, co-ordinator of the Community Action Project, at the Carnegie Centre.
Ms. Swanson, a long-time advocate for the poor, has worked in the Downtown Eastside since 1973, when she started slinging beer at the Patricia Hotel. She later moved to the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, a non-profit agency that helps the poor, and she helped found End Legislated Poverty.