A Tale of Two Stevens (Or maybe Stephens)

I’m posting a video lifted from the speeches given at Vancouver City Hall on April 1. I mentioned my involvement and a little background in my last post last week ago (I’m no instant media source apparently). This is the speech given right before mine. It features my friend Wendy Pederson, a longtime poverty activist in the Downtown Eastside. What she did was bring some men who are in the process of being evicted from their Single Room Occupancy hotel rooms (SRO). At approximately the 5 minute mark she turns the mic over to one of these men, Steven Jensen. Please take the time to watch it. He is a remarkable speaker and it’s a remarkable display of what gentrification means. Wendy won’t mind if I say it’s okay to skip to the 5 minute mark if you need to guard your time but if you are able her intro is invaluable to understanding the ethical reality of development in Vancouver and beyond.

Great video. As a twelve year old this man lived under a bridge in the Downtown Eastisde. I have a 12 year old daughter. She has 12 year old friends. I’m forced to pause. The mid-1970’s (that’s a very recent history) in Canada a 12 year old First Nations boy (at least one) was living under a bridge. Now as a grown man, health failing him, he faces eviction. He goes to City Hall to address the mayor and city council and what does he do? He ends up giving them care. He encourages them to do an excellent job, to practice change. From a place of nothing- extreme poverty, sleeps on the floor, doesn’t have appropriate food, he communicates care for those who have everything this city offers- power, wealth, recognition. This is a remarkable act. He thanks them. People who have never acknowledged he existed, instead of hatred get care from him.

He faces eviction due to the ambitions of a developer, the other Steven, let’s call him rich Steven.  I’m guessing he is likely close to the same age as our first Steven, who if we referred to him as poor Steven would be described by his economic circumstance as he clearly doesn’t need any pity. I don’t know rich Steven but I bet he never slept under a bridge as a 12 year old. I bet he lived at home. At current count it is estimated that rich Steven has purchased 10 SRO hotels, cleared them out (renoviction, evict, buy individuals’ homelessness to the tune of paying $700- $1000 just to leave, bully, whatever it takes. This in contravention to bylaws that include fines that he has also been able to skirt). Then he renovates, hikes rents to almost double, and puts glittery bars and restaurants as tenants on the ground floor. Rich Steven is described in the media as a multi-millionaire. As in, he’s still going to be financially okay even if he doesn’t get the chance to shove some poor bastard’s ass onto the street with regularity and impunity. So bars like the Electric Owl, the Lotus, Cuchillo are all in place because people like poor Steven get to be homeless, again.

We’re led to believe that the equations above don’t make sense. The Steven that is supposed to benefit society is the educated, successful businessman, is it not? Yet a life of presumed security, education, priviledge, success instead becomes the source of so much suffering, displacement, and conflict, which is not isolated to rich Steven. And the 12 year old boy living under a bridge- is he the Steven that is supposed to grow up to display grace, compassion, civility, and leadership when faced with yet another hardship?  Our cultural values are messed when the developer’s behaviour is considered success. Frankly, we’re all better off with less of the greed and destruction of rich Steven and way more of the grace and care of poor Steven. Don’t forget to consider this video before you go out to eat in Vancouver. Plan a nice meal at home instead as your act of resistance. And maybe invite some others to join in and continue the revolution.

Let’s really consider this circumstance. This is the kind of stuff that makes me restless, unable to accept the world I’ve been given, keeps me awake at night. Why is there so much space for ambitions like this to succeed? As much as we are culturally inculcated that amassing wealth is the greatest good, are we really culturally inculcated to not give a shit about a 12 year old homeless boy who grows up to continually face being hounded by his lack of value in our culture? Imagine living on less than $8000 per year. In Vancouver. That’s a difficult demand. On top of that, then imagine facing eviction, homelessness, medical difficulties. And the shiny bars continue to be full of happy people, the developer continues to be heralded as one of the 50 most powerful people in the city, and Christmastime affords us a perfect opportunity to care for the “less fortunate” amongst us.

I don’t buy it. I know very few people who would champion the fate of poor Steven, to say his circumstance doesn’t matter. I think the general values of humans would be to offer care instead. Then why does  developer behaviour  continue uncontested except by a few? And those few have been spat on, physically assaulted, and at best treated like dirt from the paying masses. I wonder if there is this element that as individuals we tend to  hold out for our own piece of the action.  We can’t condemn the developer due to the appeal of wealth and success- if we condemn him too strongly we forfeit our dream of one day being able to cash in. I’m not immune. And when I indulge this allure I become complicit, contented in silence. And so my transformation is necessary.

I don’t think that cultural wealth requires rich Steven’s behaviour. I don’t think that telling him he has enough is unjust. I also don’t think that helping poor Steven find a new home so that this developer can continue his profiteering solves anything. I do think that displacing people like poor Steven is an injustice. This injustice has government solutions but primarily it needs character solutions. Homelessness and poverty is a societal problem, not an individual’s problem. Our transformation is necessary.

On twitter I’m @ironnieg

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