Vancouver's 'real world' outside Olympic bubble

Feb 18 2010 - 9:49pm

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Kelly Flanagan has not attended any parties for fur-frocked Olympic VIPs. Nor does she have tickets for figure skating, snowboarding or hockey--although she would love to see a curling match. She never has been skiing at Whistler, a snow resort.

But she does have Olympic pins, which she wears proudly on her old brown sweatshirt: "Homes Not Games." "Broken Promises." "Meals Instead of Medals."

Flanagan lives in a transient hotel for women just five blocks from the B.C. Place stadium, site of the lavish Opening Ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics. But she might as well live a million miles away from the gleaming waterfront condos, spotless trains, stylish haberdasheries and hip restaurants of Vancouver, one of the most picturesque, progressive, friendly and livable cities in the world.

Flanagan is a "working girl" in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the poorest postal code in Canada. She's a prostitute on Hastings Street. She is a heroin and cocaine addict.

She provides a glimpse of the other side of the Olympics -- every Olympics. While athletes who have spent years practicing obscure events collect gold in custom-constructed sports palaces to the delight of corporate sponsors and TV producers, the real world grinds on outside the Olympic bubble.

"The Olympic Games have become just like Christmas -- everyone is missing the point," Flanagan said. "Maybe if the athletes were running around in the nude like they used to it would be different."

STARK CONTRAST

The sanitized extravagance of the Olympic festival, its tautly scripted melodrama and underlying jingoism stand in contrast to the daily struggles of the people who live in the cities where the Games alight for two weeks. In Beijing two years ago, entire dilapidated neighborhoods were razed and beggars were shipped out.

Pledges of urban renewal often go unfulfilled as cost overruns overwhelm government hosts. The Olympic Village here was supposed to be converted to low-income housing, but then along came the global recession and the developer went bankrupt. Most of the units will be put up for sale.

"Gorge and have fun now--until the bill comes due," said Garvin Snider, a community activist in the Eastside. He helped organize the Poverty Olympics last week, which included such events as Welfare Hurdles and Skating Around Homelessness. Mascots Creepy the Cockroach and Itchy the Bedbug marched in the mock parade. Two protests are planned Friday as torchbearers make their way toward the stadium.

They won't be running through Trannytown or the Abbott Street corner where you can buy coke, crank, meth -- anything you want.

In the blighted Eastside, homeless people stumble by boarded-up storefronts, muttering to themselves.

Because it's Canada, there's a self-effacing good humor on the streets. One man in a wheelchair called out to no one in particular, "Which way to the Yellow Brick Road?" Another tipped his tattered cap and said, "It's just me, myself and I--but they tell me I have a split personality."

The Eastside might be Vancouver's eyesore, but organizers have not displaced its residents or tried to hide it behind high fences, as was the case in Beijing. There is a sense of hope in the neighborhood because of 107 community groups working for change. One of the most innovative is InSite, the only supervised injection site in North America (one of 60 worldwide). The clinic provides Flanagan and about 6,000 other addicts with a safe, clean, caring place to inject. They bring their own drugs and use a private booth near a nurses' station. There's food, counseling and a detox center.

"Some people jug, so it's good to have a nurse nearby," Flanagan said, referring to the practice of injecting into the jugular vein.

Flanagan, 34, nearly overdosed on a speedball shot laced with ketamine two years ago. She contracted Hepatitis C from a roommate who poked her with a dirty needle. She also has HIV. She gave one of her children up for adoption; the other was taken across the U.S. border by her boyfriend, and she hasn't seen him since.

"Rather than be a fatality you can be a functioning junkie," Flanagan said of InSite. A former Toronto marijuana grower, she was living in the Eastside when Robert Pickton, Vancouver's Jack the Ripper, roamed the area. He was convicted of six murders--and suspected of many more--in 2007 after the remains of young women were found on his pig farm in Coquitlam.

GIVING AID

At InSite, there's an average of 491 injections daily. A client such as Robert Anderson might come in one to four times a day "so I don't have to go to a back alley and find rigs on the ground."

Last year at InSite, there were 484 overdose interventions and 411 admissions to the detox center upstairs. It's budget: $2.5 million.

The InnerChange Foundation, another nonprofit group, conducted research on addiction published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Addicts provided heroin or methadone at a clinic committed fewer crimes. The cost of the groundbreaking Naomi trials: $1.8 million, according to executive director Trish Walsh.

Compare those numbers to the cost of the Olympics: Vancouver's operating budget is $1.75 billion. The government has spent $580 million on venues and $900 million on security. NBC paid $255 million for rights to televise the 2010 and 2012 Games.

"There's a desire to help the Eastside but we need solutions, not donations," Walsh said.

Flanagan has tried to break her drug habit and get a better job. Maybe after the Olympics, during which she's counting on extra customers.

"I'll be cheering for Canada," she said as a block-long limo drove by.

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