B.C. Housing has declared that by the end of the month at least five shelters will be closed throughout Vancouver.* According to the province, the closures are justified because the Station Street housing project has opened this spring. Station Street contains 80 already-full units of housing, but is apparently enough to compensate for the hundreds of people who will be made homeless on April 30th.
It is telling that Station Street is being used to make the case for the closings, because as a perpetually-delayed project Station Street is at the heart of the Vancouver housing crisis. The construction of the Station Street housing was promised in the 1990s but killed by the BC Liberal government when elected in 2001. After one full decade of a freeze on the construction of social housing, combined with frozen welfare rates and a frozen minimum wage, Station Street will not be capable of housing the vast number of people made homeless in these past years.
Station Street was Little Mountain
After being re-launched as “new” housing among the 14 sites, promised in 2007, Station Street is the only one of the sites that has been built. The site ceased to exist as “additional” housing the moment the 14 sites were made retroactively “conditional” on the destruction of almost three-hundred units of housing units at Little Mountain, for sale to condo-developer Holborn. (To understand this deal, and the opportunistic merging of two separate Memorandums of Understanding, see a past article called “The Myth of the 14 Sites”).
All residents of Little Mountain were promised to be re-housed by 2010, and have since been told that only half will be re-housed by 2014 at the earliest. Jim Green, representing Holborn, has said they “don’t know” when the rest of the people will be housed as promised. The answer may be “never,” according to a recent note from Ned Jacobs: “It is now clear that whatever Holborn agreed to pay for the land was based on a hypothetical rezoning…if the conditions for redevelopment are not economically viable, Holborn will not proceed.” If it has not already, Little Mountain risks being added to the endless list of broken housing commitments in post-Olympic Vancouver, a list that includes hundreds of lost units at the Olympic Village. It is in this context that the government is attempting to close down five shelters.
Shelter closures April 2010
Today it helps to remember the events of one year ago. The situation was identical, with four shelters closing on separate dates between April 23rd and April 28th. Central Shelter was scheduled to close on April 20, 2010, but was kept open after residents announced a direct action at the site. As a result of that mobilization, and the collection of hundreds of signatures, Central Shelter is still open and will not be closed this month. People held their ground and stated, with militancy, that the question of shelter closures is not a legitimate question for political debate. As Fraser Stewart said at the time, “The cost of decent housing is ridiculous. This is my home – it’s not the best home, but it’s home. We’re going to stay here.”
A few months after the escalation at Central Shelter, the government closed the Howe Street Shelter, where residents were not organized. Again, the government closed the shelter using the same arguments now put forward about Station Street, stating that people could move into Dunsmuir House. Just as with Station Street, Dunsmuir did not prove capable of reversing growing poverty, and definitely not at a level that would justify eliminating shelters spaces.
Furthermore, Dunsmuir puts people at risk of displacement. Holborn-owned Dunsmuir House is also bound up with Little Mountain, because it was a “line item” among larger negotiations still not made public between Holborn and the Province. As a privately owned investment, where low-income people are used as placeholders within waiting-rooms of property speculation, the future of Dunsmuir House is not in any way guaranteed.
At Dunsmuir, low-income residents hold ground and pay rent while investors wait to strike the right combination of rezoning deals and market trends. The mobility of the poor is used by the mobility of capital, and this is also why city councillor Kerry Jang has recently stated that if the poor are given the right to shelter along the Kingsway corridor, it will only be in mobile shelters. As Jang reports to the Courier, “The plan is to put temporary modular units on those sites and then move the units elsewhere if the city or developer wants to build on those properties at a later date, if and when land values rise.” The opening and closing of shelters serves the same function.
As Vancouver gentrifies, shelters are prohibited West of a moving boundary. Last year the shelter under the Granville Street bridge (1435 Granville) was closed, probably forever. In April 2010, that shelter was closed for the second time in a row, responding to the complaints of middle-class residents in the area, some of whom had thrown bags of feces down on the shelter from the bridge above. In the context of the mobile eastward boundary, the feces was attached to a note that read: “Just f*ck off back to East Van where you all belong.”
Gentrification is social cleansing
As with the Granville Shelter, the Howe Street shelter was closed in order to “alleviate concerns expressed by neighbouring residents,” according to Minister Rich Coleman. Today, the same pressures are now being put on the New Fountain Shelter, located next to Blood Alley in the heart of rapidly gentrifying Gastown. In a recent article about New Fountain, the Province writes that Gastown’s “$10 cocktails and $25 entrees at a collection of new restaurants, bars and clubs, provid[e] a growing benefit to the local economy.” But the vast majority of residents in Gastown are low-income renters. The “local economy” is being destroyed, not benefited, by gentrification – a process led by the same affluent yuppies and businessmen pressuring the government to close New Fountain. Gentrifiers have already taken to throwing television sets and rocks from their Gastown apartments, but Gastown cannot be allowed to be a replay of what happened at Granville last year.
Gentrification represents the harsh underside of a desire for social change at times of heightened class politics. In these moments, social “change” comes to mean social cleansing. It has to be grasped that shelters represent not only the ground-zero of inequality, but also of exploitation, the processes by which low-income people are used to generate margins of profit. Firstly, the poor are used to hold property values down and generate a “rent-gap,” the crucial source of capital accumulation in any given process of gentrification. Secondly, as the poor are displaced elsewhere, they continue to be used to hold wages down by contributing to the revolving door of the reserve army of unemployed labour. Today we see the folding of these two categories into one. The working poor, who increasingly use the shelters and who are being turned away from shelters across the Lower Mainland, including the New fountain shelter, are in a position of super-exploitation as inequality reaches a state of historically unprecedented stratification in British Columbia (see “Greater Vancouver homeless shelters see increase in working poor”).
What is a shelter?
There is a perplexing inconsistency at the centre of this current situation. Was it not last year that Rich Coleman fought to pass the Assistance to Shelter Act at the legislature, the law that forces people into shelters? Are we to understand that the government would like us to live both inside and outside of its shelters? It is in the face of such a double reality that we have to ask a more simple question: what is a shelter?
Shelters are the precarious spaces of capitalism where the poor are housed at the will of the authority of the state. This is why the opening and closing of a shelter represents not two processes, but one single act. The state takes it as within its right to “use force against the will of a person in order to move them into a shelter” (Assistance to Shelter Act), but it is for this very reason the shelters can be taken away in a moment of absurd command.
Is the purpose of the shelter closures not also to lower our standards even further in these times of austerity for us and profits for the rich? – to make us preoccupied with the worsening conditions of the crisis, the very crisis from which supposedly emerges the “solutions” offered last-minute by the government itself? We live in a time when formerly closed shelters are re-opened and announced as “new” shelters, erasing the injustice of months before. This past December, when a cold snap swept through the Lower Mainland, the government and service providers realized that a drastically inadequate number of shelter spaces existed because of the closures the previous April. When a meagre 160 shelter spaces were finally opened after endless delay, prominent journalists praised the government for a heroic effort: “I have to say, it’s cheering to see the way the city and province, who have their tensions and conflicts, managing to do the right thing out of all this.”
As the election of Gregor Robertson and Vision has demonstrated, the crisis of the poor represents and opportunity to make promises, strengthen the authority of the state, and keep electoral power. The closing-and-opening of shelters over the past three years has proved to be an endless opportunity for press releases and statements of goodwill, but we should recall a passage from a poem by Leo Tolstoy: “I sit on a man’s back choking him / and making him carry me / and yet assure myself and others / that I am very sorry for him and / wish to ease his lot by any / means possible except getting / off his back.”
In this situation, the only thing to do is to make an affirmation. Central Shelter last year was kept open because people mobilized, and residents like Fraser Stewart and Rene Belanger emerged out of that struggle as leading organizers in the city. Unlike the managers of the non-profits, they have no interest in making money off the backs of the poor by moving them from crisis to crisis. There are other possibilities within reach. Let us make a statement of our power as humans, exceptional beings that use our bodies to block injustice. In the midst of surrender and delay, there is another way to think and act politically, one that empowers people to reject the situation.
*The closures are Cardero Shelter (747 Cardero Street), Fraser Shelter (677 E. Broadway), Howe Street Shelter (1442 Howe St), MPA Shelter (1642 West 4th Avenue), and Gastown’s New Fountain Shelter (51B W. Cordova Street).