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Whether the Poor Burn or Freeze, There is No Excuse for Soft-Ball Questions

by Philip Neatby

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It is telling that the violent death of Tracey, a homeless woman in Vancouver, who burned to death after attempting to keep warm after constructing a small fire in a downtown street corner, has resulted in national headlines while the freezing death of another unidentified homeless man in Montreal the very next night has resulted in only a passing mention in Montreal newspapers. It is beyond cynical to point out that when a homeless person burns to death, it is a national tragedy, whereas when a homeless person freezes to death, it is scarcely even news. But this case demonstrates that when Canadian media isolate one homeless death as opposed to reporting upon the increasing pattern of homeless deaths over the last two decades, it paradoxically allows politicians more of a free hand to sweep the poor out of the public's view.

Journalists who have been reporting on this story for the CBC, Vancouver Sun, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and other news outlets have allowed Vancouver's Mayor Gregor Robertson to frame the story as one where this death occurred because a woman "chose" not to stay in a shelter. Tracey reportedly refused to go to nearby shelters, because none would allow her dog to remain with her. During a brief press conference, Robertson urged city officials to make "it known that there is [shelter] space available" and claimed that the homeless ought to be simply told that "it’s now time to come in." None of the journalists present inquired whether Robertson had a plan to develop more affordable housing, something homeless advocates have been demanding for years in every major city in Canada. No questions referred to any of the other estimated 56 other homeless deaths across BC over the last two years, nor did anyone. No journalists contrasted the city's extravagant budget for the Vancouver Winter Olympics with its comparably paltry budget for programs focused upon low-income residents of the city.

In the end, the death of Tracey has been allowed to be isolated, cast in the light of a tragic freak occurrence, as opposed to a result of everyday policy choices made by government officials and social service agencies. Worse, this story has been framed in a way that blames Tracey for her own death, due to her "choice" to remain on the streets with her canine companion in sub-zero temperatures.

One day later, CBC Vancouver has reported that Vancouver's mayor is considering ways of "compelling homeless people to move off the streets in sub-zero temperatures." For anyone who has been following the efforts of homeless advocates in Vancouver over the last few years, it should be clear that this is code for allowing police even greater power to arrest and detain the poor in the run-up to the 2010 Olympics.

When it comes to Dickensian deaths of the poor in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, there is no excuse for sloppy, unresearched journalism. A press conference with a public official should be a time when the gloves come off.

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