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Mayor plans to renew call for Pope Francis to visit Downtown Eastside

Mayor Gregor Robertson to visit the Vatican July 21-22
The Downtown Eastside and its residents’ problems with addictions, mental illness and homelessness are topics Mayor Gregor Robertson hopes to address with Pope Francis at the Vatican next week. Photo Dan Toulgoet

If the opportunity presents itself when he visits the Vatican next week, Mayor Gregor Robertson says he will renew a request from a delegation of faith groups to personally invite Pope Francis to the Downtown Eastside in an effort to bring international attention to the city’s mental health, addictions and homelessness crises.

Robertson will be in Vatican City July 21 as a participant in a two-day workshop with the Pope in which climate change and “modern slavery” will be discussed among city and state leaders, including the mayors of Seattle and Portland and California Gov. Jerry Brown.

“If I have the opportunity, I’ll certainly be restating that invitation to come visit Vancouver and see our challenges with poverty firsthand, which is surprising for such an affluent city,” Robertson told the Courier by telephone Monday. “We have our set of problems that have been tough to solve and he’s demonstrated his commitment to tackling poverty in all its forms.”

Robertson believes a visit from the Pope would draw “enormous attention” to poverty and its associated problems in the Downtown Eastside. Such a visit, he added, would signal the importance of the provincial and federal governments to commit to a second round of investments to continue the work of the now-defunct Vancouver Agreement, which saw all three levels of government spend money in an effort to improve life for residents.

“There’s been slow change in the neighbourhood and lots more people housed, but there’s a lot more work to do and it would be great to have that level of attention from the Pope to catalyze some change with the B.C. and Canadian government,” the mayor said.

In February, a group representing a broad range of faiths, including Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim, sent a letter to Pope Francis requesting he visit Vancouver to walk the Downtown Eastside and “break bread with the residents and others.”

The group, which is led by the city’s former homeless advocate Judy Graves and lawyer Tom Beasley, also wants the Pope to visit an urban and remote reserve in Canada to better understand the plight of aboriginal people, many of whom move to the Downtown Eastside and end up on the streets.

Graves said a return letter from the Vatican stated the Pope had no immediate plans to come to Vancouver, although she said Robertson being singled out as the only Canadian politician to travel to Rome and meet with the Catholic leader is encouraging news. If the mayor doesn’t get an opportunity to renew the group’s invitation directly with the Pope, Graves said she is confident Robertson could speak to senior leaders in the Vatican’s administration.

“I’m not giving up,” Graves told the Courier Tuesday morning before leading a tour of the Downtown Eastside.

Like Robertson, Graves believes a visit from the Pope would bring international attention to the Downtown Eastside much the way the Pope’s presence in a shantytown in Paraguay over the weekend captured the media’s attention. While in Paraguay, the Pope characterized the excesses of capitalism as “the dung of the devil” and how the greed for money creates a subtle dictatorship that “condemns and enslaves men and women.”

Susan Tatoosh, executive director of the Aboriginal Friendship Centre and a member of the committee which wrote to the Pope, said she is hopeful the pontiff’s focus on eradicating poverty will extend to Vancouver with a visit.

“In all of his messages, he’s really spoken to the homeless as well as the people who are living in poverty around the world,” Tatoosh said. “We can only keep hoping positively that he will look at our request.”

The City of Vancouver released statistics last week that showed 1,746 people were counted as homeless during a two-day count in March. About 32 per cent of those people identified as aboriginal, a significant overrepresentation when the same group’s population in Vancouver is only 2.5 per cent.

“We do have to come to the urban areas to get the services that are lacking in our communities and a lot of times the people are coming totally unprepared,” she said. “They come for education, they come for employment and they don’t realize just the differences between coming from a rural area to a metropolitan area like Vancouver where there are huge costs. Things soon spiral out of their control.”

If the Pope agreed to visit, the faith groups plan to have him celebrate mass from a barge in English Bay, surrounded by indigenous canoes. The Pope would be transported by canoe to the barge, symbolizing “a moment on the journey of reconciliation between indigenous peoples and Christians,” according to the group’s letter.

Earlier this month, the Pope released a document called an encyclical devoted to environmentalism, where he tied how the deterioration of the environment and society affects poor and vulnerable people more than those above the poverty line. He has also said there is a moral imperative for addressing climate change.

“He’s connecting the dots between climate change and the deplorable conditions of the world’s poor, and he’ll be looking for us to support his call for urgent action on climate change and global poverty,” said Robertson, whose administration has committed to become the “greenest city” in the world by 2020. “His convening power is drawing a great team of mayors and governors together to talk shop and to then go out and advocate vigorously to our national leaders to set significant and binding targets on reducing climate pollution.”

Pope John Paul II was the last pontiff to visit Vancouver. In 1984, he spoke to thousands at B.C. Place Stadium, where he directed his comments of hope and the “meaning of life” to children, seniors and the disabled. He returned to Canada in 1987 to meet with First Nations in Fort Simpson, N.W.T.

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