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Housing needs focus of 2010 Games hunger strike relay

After going without food for a week, a local activist has set the stage for a concerted hunger strike relay meant to bring awareness to Canada’s “dire” housing crisis in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Games.

Am Johal, a board member with the Impact on Community Coalition, decided to forgo solid foods following a Christmas Eve visit to the First United Church. He said he was shocked to see the night-time shelter full of homeless people with frostbite and other basic medical needs.

Today, Johal passed the fasting torch to Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC, and said a new hunger striker will carry on the relay each week until the 2010 Games wrap up operations.

Johal told the Tyee he hopes the symbolic action will bring pressure on Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to boost funding for housing in its late January budget.

According to the activist, Canada has over 200,000 homeless people with as many as 15,000 residing in B.C.

“We have such a dire situation that if we dealt with it in a comprehensive way we’re all going to be much better off,” Johal said.

Specifically, Johal is calling for a federal commitment of $2 billion and the reestablishment of a national housing program.

Asked why his call for housing aid is tied to the Vancouver Olympics, Johal said the Games illustrate the lack of political will to take action on the issue.

“The security budget for the Games will likely come in at over $1 billion,” he said. “We want to show what the federal government is willing to spend money on and what it’s not.”

Johal added that from 2002 to 2008, Vancouver’s homeless population has more than doubled, a trend due in part to evictions caused by real estate speculation in the lead-up to the Games.

He said the hunger strike relay is not a protest against the Olympics, but a means to leverage social aid for housing from senior levels of government.

“We’re inviting the world here in just over a year,” Johal said. “I think there’s still time to make significant improvements.”

Geoff Dembicki is a staff reporter for the Hook.

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