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.
"When I was at DERA in the seventies and eighties, we didn't work on homelessness, because it wasn't a problem. You just didn't see people sleeping in the streets like you do now," she says.
The Downtown Eastside was different in other ways back then, too. For one thing, there weren't dozens and dozens of boarded-up buildings.
"There are two root causes to this problem," says Ms. Swanson, striking what will be a recurring theme in interviews. "One is what happened in 1993 when the Mulroney government abandoned the national housing program. The other was the abolition of the Canada Assistance Plan."
Until 1993, Ottawa provided the provinces with two-thirds of the funding for low-cost housing. Provincial housing programs continued after the federal money stopped, but not at the same pace, creating a rapidly widening gap between demand and supply. With fewer social-housing units available, poor people turned to cheap rental rooms, but rents were increasing and social assistance wasn't.
In 1996, the Canada Assistance Plan ended after 30 years of guiding transfer payments from Ottawa -- worsening the situation. CAP had tied the provinces to providing welfare support to people based on need, but provinces were then free to put restrictions on welfare and they quickly did, disqualifying many.
"The province stopped giving welfare to people in need and meeting basic living costs . . . all of a sudden, a lot less people are qualifying for support," Ms. Swanson says.
About 45 per cent do have some source of income -- be it social assistance, pension or disability payment. People also generate money by binning, bottle collecting, panhandling, working for minimum wage at casual jobs or criminal activity.
"That's what has closed the stores in our community," Ms. Swanson says. "The local residents have no purchasing power. When I worked at DERA, this was a poor community but people could afford to go for a cup of coffee or they could buy a hot plate for their room. Now they can't. And in those days, we had housing for them. Now we don't."
The homeless can't afford to rent even the cheapest rooms ($325 per month) in the Downtown Eastside, she says.
Jill Davidson, homeless-policy co-ordinator for the City of Vancouver, agrees.
"Sometimes we forget we didn't always live like this," she says of the homeless situation. "During Expo [in 1986], we had nothing like this."
Ms. Davidson says when there was federal funding for housing, the city was opening 800 low-rent units a year. "Right now, we are lucky if we can get 200, 300 units a year. We're largely falling behind."
Exacerbating the problem is a trend that began in the late 1980s, which has seen the closing or conversion of an increasing number of cheap hotel rooms, known as single-room occupancy units. SROs are the last hope for people in poverty before they start living in the street.
The $325 monthly housing allowance for those on social assistance (along with a $185 living allowance) is supposed to cover the rent of an SRO. But few rooms go that cheaply now. A recent survey found just one vacancy in the city at the $325 rate; 25 per cent of all SROs cost $380 or more. Officials say $380 is the point at which someone on social assistance can no longer afford to rent a room and have enough left over for food.
City planners estimate that 800 new units of social housing are needed every year for 10 years. But at the current rate, and with an increasing number of SROs closing, Vancouver is expected to lose 1,600 low-income housing units by 2010, doubling the number of its homeless.
Dealing with homeless people, who have multiple problems, is difficult for social workers. One-third of the homeless have symptoms of mental illness. Many have severe depression or say they think of suicide. At least two-thirds are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
David Eby, a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society, a non-profit organization that advocates for the poor, set out this year to define the homelessness problem in Vancouver.
His team of researchers took an unusual approach. They fanned out through the streets armed with affidavits and conducted interviews with 160 people they found living outside. The problem is bad, he says -- and it's getting worse.
"Homelessness is going to be an Olympic issue," he says. "When people show up [in 2010] and see the homeless, they are going to be shocked."
Mr. Eby says the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Coastal Health have made the problem worse by inadequately enforcing building and health standards in many low-income buildings.
Some homeless people choose to live on the street because the SROs are so unhealthy and unsafe, he says.
One of the jarring images you see in Vancouver is the spectre of homeless people panhandling outside storefronts where Help Wanted signs hang in the windows.
Mr. Eby is asked to explain this contradiction.
"Generally speaking, people on social assistance have some sort of disability," he says. "They were injured at work and didn't have insurance, were in a car accident, or were fetal-alcohol syndrome. They can't work."
They are also for the most part dirty, poorly dressed, bug infested, sick and often without shoes or socks.
One recommendation in the City of Vancouver Homeless Action Plan calls for government to help people "transition to work" by providing financial support for clothing, glasses, dentures and bus passes.
"The longer people are street homeless, the more homelessness becomes an entrenched way of life, and people lose the ability to be reintegrated into society," the city report says. "Having a home is essential to everything we value in life."
For the front-line nurses at the Vancouver Native Housing Society, the lack of housing is a life-or-death issue for the simple reason that patients who can't be found can't be treated.
"If I get them a place to stay, I can get them on antibiotics," Julia Murru says of her homeless patients who are HIV-positive. "I can get them on anti-AIDS drugs. They could live another 20 years. They don't have to die. [But] they are going to die. They are going to die on the street."
She desperately tried to find one man a place to live so the doctor could start treatment, but at the end of the day had been unable to find even a cheap SRO.
"He walked out," she says of the man, named David. "He may never come back. . . . I don't know where he lives. Sometimes in the alley. Sometimes in the park. Sometimes under the car."
One patient, a homeless woman, is often found sleeping on the sidewalk beside the front door at 6 a.m., when the office opens.
In the basement of the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, Cynthia Low looks bleary eyed and exhausted. She is finishing a 24-hour shift that was brought on when the 42 women refused to leave the drop-in centre at the end of the day.
Passing by word of mouth on the street that night was a report that a homeless woman had been raped and beaten on the street. Sexual assaults are so common that nobody questioned the report.
"The danger of rape is there all the time," Ms. Low says. Homeless women are outnumbered by men, who make up 75 per cent of those living on the streets.
Men dominate shelters, she says, adding that one co-ed facility she visited had 80 men and two women.
If a woman joins a line of men outside a soup kitchen, she will often be harassed. If she goes to live in a cheap single-room occupancy hotel, she may find a man waiting to assault her in the shared washroom down the hall.
"The women down here are probably the most traumatized people in society," she says.
Adding to the tension of her overnight shift is the boil-water advisory, which hung over the city for more than a week, putting everyone on edge. Buying water was out of the question for most of these women. Unable to get even a drink of water at public fountains, something snapped and they occupied the drop-in centre. Then cold weather hit. Heavy snow fell. A week later, the women were still sleeping in the centre, with no end in sight.
No level of government offered help.
"No one seems to want to take any leadership," Ms. Low says. "Everyone is saying it's someone else's responsibility."
She says the occupation kept her staff from doing their most important job -- housing searches for the homeless. But with 10,000 people on the social housing waiting list in B.C., that has become an increasingly futile task.
"In the past couple of months, we were getting upwards of 15 people who had to leave our doors knowing they had no place to go, knowing they would be unsafe for the night. That is very disturbing," says Ms. Low, who has worked at the centre for 16 years.
Out on the sidewalk, Bernie Williams, who works with the United Native Nations, an organization that provides support for urban aboriginals, says homeless women have become increasingly desperate.
"We've been hearing from women turned away from shelters because there's no room," she says. "It's just not acceptable any more. . . . A lot of women are getting sick down here, living out in the cold. Our mayor should be ashamed of himself."
Behind her, on a building wall, someone had put up posters that read: "We want housing" and "Change Cruel Situation. Give Shelter."
"This is a very serious situation. It's just not improving at all down here," says Deborah Mannette, a long-time Downtown Eastside resident who has come to the centre to show support. She lives in an SRO nearby, which is barely better than life on the street, she says.
"Apparently our government doesn't see, hear or care. . . . Nobody is watching and nobody gives a damn."
A city's crisis
Homelessness is the biggest problem that Vancouver faces ó and it's getting worse, according to a new poll by The Strategic Counsel. The poll of 500 Vancouver residents aged 18 years or older was conducted between Nov. 24 and Nov. 29; polls of this size are considered accurate to within 4.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
What is the most important issue facing the Vancouver area?
Traffic and transit issues: 22%
Quality of health care: 15%
Environmental issues: 6%
House prices: 10%
Don't know/ other: 4%
How serious is the issue of homelessness in Vancouver*?
Somewhat serious: 40%
Very serious: 53%
Don't know: 1%
Not serious: 7%
Is the problem of homelessness in Vancouver getting better, worse, or the same?
Getting worse: 72%
The same: 22%
Getting better: 2%
Don't know: 4%
* Numbers may not add up to 100 due to rounding
SOURCE: THE STRATEGIC COUNSEL
Down and out, for the count
Nobody knows how many homeless people there are in Canada but estimates range from 150,000 to 250,000. Homelessness remains a largely undefined problem because no reliable method for counting people who live on the streets has been determined. Although several cities conduct counts, not all follow the same methodology, leading to data that can't be compared. Ottawa, for example, has results that indicate it has more homeless people than either Vancouver or Toronto, which have much larger populations. Some jurisdictions use point in time counts, which aim to determine the number of homeless people in a geographic area on a given day. Others use period counts, annualizing the numbers to determine the total number of individuals in a given year who are homeless. Some counts rely only on people staying in shelters; others exclude detox units, recovery houses or hospitals. Some don't include emergency shelters for abused women. Counting people who live hidden, under bridges or in alley ways, and those who are often on the move and don't follow a regular timetable is a difficult task.
Homeless numbers by city
POINT IN TIME COUNT
Populations of cities 2001
SOURCES: THE HOUSING & HOMELESSNESS BRANCH, HUMAN RESOURCES & SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT CANADA
Two degrees short of salvation: How the streets killed Francis McAllister
An unnatural disaster: Don't blame Vancouver's climate
Suburban sprawl: The homeless outside of the East Side
There is a way: A road map out of dead-end streets
But is there a will? Victoria and city hall react
Follow the series on globeandmail.com, CKNW radio and CTV News.