Photo credit: Murray Bush / Flux Photo
At noon on Friday March, 22nd, Homeless Dave began a hunger strike in support of housing rights and social justice in the Downtown Eastside. The strike was announced in front of the controversial Sequel 138 development site at Main and Hastings, where a developer is planning to build unaffordable market condos using a financial subsidy from the BC Liberal government.
Homeless Dave, who is now housed and goes by the name “the artist formerly known as Homeless Dave,” has put three demands at the front of the indefinite hunger strike: that the city decline the development permit for Sequel 138; that the former Main Street police station be used for social housing; and that the Downtown Eastside be declared a “social justice zone.” “We’re not about smashing windows,” stated Dave, “we’re about smashing the old broken paradigms and building new paradigms that are more just and equal.”
The hunger strike has already gained broad support from the neighborhood and from First Nations leaders. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, representing the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, attended the announcement of the hunger strike. Chief Phillip referred to the health of Homeless Dave and panned the inaction of the current municipal and provincial governments. “Dave is diabetic and has health issues and is prepared to risk his health, and I think it’s a sad commentary on the negligence on the part of Mayor Robertson and his council as well as the Christy Clark government who promised that families would be put first.”
Chief Stewart Phillip continued: “As I recall when he ran for the Mayorship, one of his [Robertson’s] most prominent promises was affordable housing, and certainly condo development is not affordable.” The hunger strike comes after years of concentrated struggle and community pressure to maintain secure and healthy housing for low-income and Indigenous communities. It is a struggle that is as much about housing as it is about dignity and the right of people to stay where they live.
In the last year alone, residents have organized countless rallies, petitions, and delegations to city hall and development permit board hearings. There have also been numerous memorable community Townhalls, Downtown Eastside Neighborhood meetings, press conferences, street theatre actions, protests, and an endless number of articles published by DTES residents, including the recent launch of a DTES newspaper: Downtown East. Women continue to call for justice in the case of the Murdered and Missing Women. DTES residents have also been the driving force behind the successful Social Housing Coalitions and are active participants in the city’s current Local Area Planning Process (LAPP).
Most recently DTES residents have been organizing daily pickets outside the upscale restaurant Pidgin, located on Carrall Street opposite Pigeon Park. Homeless Dave has been a key organizer in the movement to stop gentrification and displacement — a movement that has thrived without the help of a city hall once elected to do just that. The Carrall Street corridor, on which Pigeon Park sits, has long been deemed a gentrification threshold. It is a fighting ground between the community and the city, who in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics pushed through the Carrall Street Greenway revitalization, even going so far as to propose renaming Pigeon Park as “Pioneer Park.”
Pigeon Park has a central importance in the DTES. It is an important meeting place for Indigenous residents – many call it “home.” As Tina James said in July 2012, “The cops are bugging me to get out of Pigeon Park all the time now. It’s my real home and I’m not going anywhere just because the yuppies want it now.” In a recent article Ivan Drury highlights the importance of the park and lists a few highlights of the past decade: the Safe Fixing Site (2002), Squatting for Housing Justice (2006), a starting point for the Olympic Tent Village (2010), DNC Street Market and Fair (2010-2013).
In January 2010, the Carnegie Community Action Project literally “drew a line in the sand” across Carrall Street, demarcating Carrall Street as a frontier in the city-wide housing crisis. Less than a year later the city granted the demolition permit for Pantages Theatre while refusing to accept an offer to buy the property for affordable housing. If Sequel 138 is built this year, the frontier will be surpassed, putting more than a thousand units of housing at risk on the 100 East block of Hastings. As Chief Stewart Phillip stated at the opening ceremony of the hunger strike: “This is a case of the rich pushing out the poor through condo development and compromising the ability of local residents down here to access affordable housing. We’re losing an alarming number of single room occupancy units to condo development.”
Yet the city has refused to tighten the SRA by-law, prevent evictions, add housing and shelter, or even moderately regulate the rate of gentrification. From this perspective, the hunger strike is neither arbitrary nor spontaneous, but rather the only logical outcome of years of organizing fallen on deaf ears.
The hunger strike comes at a critical juncture in the housing struggle: operating agreements across the country are expiring and presently there are no federal or provincial plans to initiate new or extend existing operating agreements. In practice this means that the forecasted provincial funding for social housing in 2015 is zero. At the same time, rents are increasing at an unprecedented rate. In 2012 alone, 426 SRO units became out of reach as rents soared. The increasing rents come on top of a largely unchanged housing situation for low-income renters, who continue to live in substandard SRO rooms without basic amenities such as kitchens and toilets.
Meanwhile, slumlords are still the largest providers of affordable housing, and the Sahota family continues to expand their housing stock despite hundreds of complaints to the Residential Tenancy Branch. It is in this context that Homeless Dave’s demands are likely to be seen not only as reasonable but as necessary.
 A writer for the Globe and Mail quoted Chief Stewart Phillip from memory, but in a significant revision, Globe editors replaced “Gregor Robertson” with “the city.”