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Olympics find home(less) in Vancouver

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Olympics find home(less) in Vancouver
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A protester holds a placard to demonstrate during the Olympic torch relay on Feb. 12, 2010 in Vancouver, …

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – At the corner of West Hastings and Abbott, in a downtrodden pocket of Vancouver that was supposed to be used as a hockey parking lot, lies the heartbeat of the anti-Olympic movement.

It is here, amid a tent city on a barren patch of real estate in the shadow of a swanky high rise, that you'll find a sentiment Winter Olympic chiefs don't want you to know about.

Roughly 200 protestors, some homeless and others braving the cold night after night to campaign against societal injustice, swept onto this block of land on Vancouver's busiest street Monday, and they won't be moving until the Games are gone.

"What we are doing is illegal," said Dave Diewart, a spokesman for Streams of Justice, one of more than 90 groups supporting the protest. "The law says we shouldn't be here on someone else's land but we needed to put out the message that there is a dark side to the Olympics and a reality that the Games have done nothing for people on the lower reaches of the social ladder."

For all the patriotic billboards and "Go Canada" apparel that can be seen on the streets of downtown, there is a significant slice of Vancouver's population that wishes the world's elite winter athletes had never rocked up on their doorstep.

This is the most visible sign of it, a collection of struggling humanity not concerned with scraping together a few hundred bucks for a speedskating ticket, but rather focused on how to scrape together the next meal.

The feeling here is that instead of spending more than $1 billion on staging the Winter Olympics, funds could have been used to improve the downtrodden Downtown Eastside zone, one of Canada's most repressed areas. And that's the message these protestors are trying to get out.

In fact, the dissidents take pride in having struck blows against two of their most hated foes.

First there is Concord Pacific, a giant developer that owns the land and plans eventually to use it for a block of apartments. Concord Pacific is seen as the bad guy, a major cog in the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside, which may have contributed to higher rents and therefore more homelessness.

Then there is the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC), which leased the land for the duration of the Olympics. The area was designated as a staging zone for the Opening Ceremony and a temporary parking lot. Instead, all VANOC got was a bunch of tents, an open fire and some unwanted publicity as protestors and homeless alike congregated to the spot. The site now hosts food stations replenished by volunteers and well-wishers, and a section offering medical aid to those who need it.

"I am better off here," said Hedge Lowery, a 52-year-old homeless man, clutching a bowl of soup. "This week is good. I am getting fed and I'm making a statement against the Olympics. Next week I am back on the streets."

VANOC is reluctant to talk about the protest.

“We are aware of the tents,” said VANOC vice president of communications Renee Smith-Vallade. “We are determining where we need [the land] for the closing ceremonies.”

Protests and some level of disillusionment are inevitable at any Olympic Games. But this protest is about as visible as it gets – painfully so for VANOC. Canada Hockey Place, where the millionaires of the ice will vie for gold, is just around the corner. The main media and broadcast centers are nearby. BC Place, home to the Opening Ceremony, is a short walk away. Journeys to the Pacific Coliseum, home of the figure skating and short-track speedskating, invariably pass the site.

Somehow, given all that has gone wrong with these Olympics and the clumsy way crises have been handled, the disharmony and disgruntlement encountered here seems all the more relevant.

"Erratic, amateur and unprepared" are some of the nicer comments that have been leveled at these Games and its organizers, many of the barbs fired off by the salivating British press, happy to strike up premature comparisons with London's summer Olympics in 2012.

Yet there was no lack of preparation for this protest, which is backed by groups promoting a diverse array of indigenous and marginalized causes.

"Homes are needed and that's why people are coming here in the tent city," said activist Harsha Walia. "The priority is not the Olympics or billions spent for a party for rich people. The priority should be housing."

Homeless groups have felt like they are the fall guys in Vancouver's staging of the Olympics, with the city not wanting its seamier side on display to the world. A controversial provincial law allowing police officers to march homeless people out of public areas was passed in 2009. But the police now will be cautious about public spectacles after a prominent judge warned the force that there are "no special rules for the Downtown Eastside," this following two police officers found to have failed to deliver Charter rights, the equivalent of Miranda rights, to a man searched and found to be in possession of illegal drugs.

The public relations department of Concord Pacific did not return phone calls from Yahoo! Sports, and local officials deferred to VANOC for statements.

In the apartments that overlook the tent city, there is confusion and discontent. A linen sheet emblazoned with the slogan "Build Resumes, Not Tents," is a witty aside, but there is little else residents can do.

It remains to be seen whether VANOC does anything before the Olympics leave town.

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