On Saturday April 18th, our members and supporters organized the Kennedy Stewart Squat in the Downtown Eastside to provide emergency shelter for unhoused and underhoused residents seeking space during the COVID-19 global health pandemic. It has been heartening to receive support for the squat in our community and our member organizations. The squat was also supported by Vancouver School Board commissioners, following cities in Ontario, Massachusetts, Arkansas and elsewhere that have used schools for emergency shelter during the coronavirus pandemic. It has also been a sign of the success of the squat that, in the days following the repression of the squat with the arrest of 14 squatters, both the City and Provincial government made statements that they are taking measures to provide housing for homeless residents in BC, and that the “anxieties of DTES residents are justified.” We feel partially vindicated by these statements, but unfortunately the provincial government’s current plans are seriously lacking.
Our objective with this squat was twofold: to protect ourselves from the harms of COVID-19 while pressuring the government for immediate and long-term housing solutions. In the short term, the government must open some of the existing 12,000 units of tourist hotels as has been done in cities like Toronto and San Francisco. There are at least 8,000 homeless people in BC. In Vancouver alone, at least 2,500 people are living in the streets. Another 4,700 live in private SROs where access to COVID-safe washing facilities is not available, and 2,000 in government-owned SROs, where again washing facilities are shared, scarce, and significantly under-maintained. We therefore estimate that there are at least 8,500 people in Vancouver for which it is impossible to follow basic provincial COVID-19 protocol.
In the days following the eviction of the Stewart Squat, the DTES and Oppenheimer residents who took this stand are unshaken in their commitment to the fight for housing; even the 14 community members who were arrested are undeterred and want to push on to the next action. Our fight is just; we are right to push for what we need. No human should be homeless in our city, especially not during a deadly pandemic. BC’s public health officer continues to stress the need for social distancing and self-isolation, with the simple message: “stay at home.” Yet how are our homeless communities supposed to stay home?
The Stewart Squat has not been without its detractors. It is unsurprising that commentators from the corporate media would oppose the squat and amplify local political, business, and property-owning elites. However, criticisms of the squat have also been levelled from potentially sympathetic voices. Many of these critiques have been made with little actual knowledge of the squat and of its organizational context, and this statement is a clarification of the record.
Leadership and community power at Oppenheimer Park
Although OHCW has been organizing in Oppenheimer Park consistently in recent months, it was a link between a park resident and members of Red Braid Alliance that sparked the squat at Lord Strathcona. From that early stage, OHCW was invited to co-organize the squat and over the next several weeks a diverse group of Oppenheimer residents, underhoused residents of the DTES, Indigenous women, Red Braid, and OHCW organizers came together to meet 2–3 times a week. Once underway, the leadership structure included a squat council, a women’s wing for cis and trans women and gender non conforming people, and an Indigenous leadership council to create a distinct space for Indigenous squatters to fight against the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous land and nationhood. All plans were cut short when the squat was evicted by police, but part of the purpose of the caucus was to act as a way for new Indigenous members to join a council that had both autonomy and leadership.
The response from across corporate media outlets and progressive social media commentators has erased the leadership of poor communities, communities of colour, and Indigenous peoples in the squat and in the making of the squat. There was an immediate assumption that the squat was not led by residents of the DTES and Oppenheimer park. Why? This is a patently false assumption and it diminishes our collective efforts to build a movement across lived experiences and identities. To state, as many did, that the squat was led and consisted of rich white people is not only blatantly false, but implicitly erases marginalized people’s agency and contribution to this movement.
Those who took to social media calling for people to “stay home” ignore the fact that many of the folks involved don’t have homes. Without even setting foot at the squat, they assumed they knew exactly who was and wasn’t included in making Steward Squat. They condescendingly assumed that people can’t make informed choices about the squats and actions they are involved in, about their own health and safety, about their own lives.
Location & strategy
After considering many possible buildings for the squat, we decided to occupy Lord Strathcona Elementary School, a publicly-owned building. Our legal defense was built around protections to the right to life, liberty, and security of the person under section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The squat created a space that was more COVID-safe than shelters or the street; evicting people from it amounted to denying people basic access to health measures and constituted an interference with their own health and safety strategies during the pandemic.
We decided that a publicly-owned building would be an ideal location for the squat because the government is legally held by the courts to a higher standard than private property owners, especially during a global health pandemic. However, the police, acting on instruction from the Vancouver School Board Superintendent Suzanne Hoffman, maneuvered in a way that kept the colonial courts out of the process. Despite the implication of Charter rights and without first seeking a Court injunction, the School Board and VPD moved ahead with a forcible eviction.
With vacancy rates at nearly zero in Vancouver, it is almost impossible to find a suitable indoor space that is both liveable and, from a legal perspective, defensible. We also chose a site that was closer to Oppenheimer Park, where we felt the need for shelter was most urgent. This ruled out the tourist hotels of the downtown core. The squattable private buildings that we surveyed were toxic, unsafe, and unlivable.
Eviction and media fear mongering
Despite our extensive preparations, we did not anticipate the reactionary response to the squat from Strathcona property owners in the area, much less the outrage from the corporate media and concerned progressives. Lord Strathcona Elementary was and is empty because the school term has been suspended during COVID-19. The squat occupied the North building of the school, which is currently unused due to renovations. Nevertheless, hundreds of Vancouverites responded with anger at false information that the squat was “compromising” a youth food program based at Lord Strathcona Elementary. The squat was self-contained in a completely different building separate from the food program. The entranceways for the two buildings are not connected.
For those who engaged in fear mongering that COVID-diseased homeless residents would “contaminate” the area around the building, we remind you that COVID-19 is not an airborne disease, that our community is currently not more infected than the wider society, and that homeless individuals already live in all parts of Vancouver, from the DTES to Kitsilano and Yaletown. To wish that we would simply stay hidden and isolated is unacceptable and ignorant. It goes without saying that we support the meal program operating out of the school; like the squat, it is a critical response to the government’s failure to ensure appropriate housing and resources for underserved communities during COVID-19.
But the immediate and coordinated rush to shut down the squat merely because it happened to be situated in proximity to the meal program (and without taking any steps to confirm that the program would be impacted) cannot genuinely be construed as concern for children of the Strathcona neighbourhood. At the end of the day it is poor-bashing by another name, drawn from the same disdain and fear exhibited toward poor people that we see everyday, pandemic or no pandemic.
The provincial health officer states that all British Columbians need to self-isolate, and yet thousands of people have no homes or live in shelters where self-isolation is impossible. The question of how to make the squat COVID-safe was something that we discussed extensively in our planning meetings. Part 6 of our protocols developed for shared life inside the squat read as follows.
6. Follow COVID-19 precautions:
- In common areas, keep 2-meter distance from other people at all times
- Never enter somebody’s personal living space
- Wash hands for 20 seconds multiple times a day
- Don’t touch your face
- Use harm reduction supplies: no sharing
Some have cited images of squatters without face masks as evidence of the irresponsible practices of the squat. Dozens of masks were available both to squatters and outside supporters, who were ensured access to PPE, harm reduction, and public health supplies. We anticipated up to several dozen residents on the first evening and came prepared with that number of supplies, even though they were in excess of what was needed. This is another clear example of the assumption that we poor people cannot take our health into our own hands.
It should also be noted that current provincial directives do not require face masks, which is why we decided to not mandate, let alone coerce, residents to wear masks under our protocols. It is disingenuous to critique the squat for perceived COVID-19 transmissions risks, as though people living on the street are not exposed to a vast range of health risks, including exposure to police violence, threats to physical and mental health, inadequate access to hygiene, and lack of privacy, among other challenges. A person living on the street has half the life expectancy of someone with a home. Our communities need housing for a wide range of diverse reasons directly affecting their health, and our slogan during COVID-19 is simple: squat to survive.
Legal knowledge and risking arrest
The Kennedy Stewart Squat was planned for weeks in advance and the residents of Oppenheimer who stepped forward to occupy the building were informed of their legal circumstances and risks throughout the process. Those who chose not to risk arrest stayed on the outside or participated in a support capacity from the park. Throughout the night, additional residents of the park came to the building to join the squat in search of adequate shelter. They were as well briefed on the legal situation and the legal risks and the likeliness of an arrest before entering. Some Oppenheimer residents who came to join the squat decided against joining when informed about the legal risks.
Some have claimed that we should have organized an unpublicized “quiet” squat to provide long-term shelter for those in need of it. This ex post facto criticism assumes that a public, political squat cannot or should not also be used as a place of shelter, and that any publicised squat will be swiftly crushed by police. The squatters were well aware of the risk of arrest, as it is sadly a lived reality of marginalized people in the Downtown Eastside. The eviction of poor people from private property by police is a daily reality, not something “created” by political actions.
To reiterate, our two-pronged strategy was informed by our confidence in the defensibility of the site; staying put was not separate from making a point. In the DTES, there are hundreds of individuals struggling to find shelter for survival. As a movement, OHCW demands more than survival – we fight together to pressure the government to provide the housing we deserve. Quiet squats alone cannot serve the needs of 2,500 marginalized people in Vancouver.
The housing movement cannot be put on hold
While business as usual may be at a standstill, the housing movement cannot be put on hold. So long as our friends, family and community remain unhoused, we will continue forward; our homes can’t wait. We hope that Vancouverites hear and join our call for action.
The Our Homes Can’t Wait campaign and coalition were formed in 2015 by the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), and broadened into a large DTES housing coalition following a series of town halls. The town halls identified three key areas for the campaign: build 10 new sites of social housing in the DTES, save and upgrade the SROs, and province-wide rent control. For the past several years, Our Homes Can’t Wait has taken an active role in working with residents of Oppenheimer Park to push the City and Province for basic services at Oppenheimer. We were active in the successful fightback against an injunction by the City and Province in 2018-19, as well as a more recent successful resistance against a government scheme to freeze under-repaired SROS as a way of clearing the squat while refusing to build or renovate any new housing. Part of our work involves supporting Indigenous and low-income leadership in the park, particularly the leadership of Indigenous women, taking direction from the community in the fight both for tent city survival and a wider fight for adequate housing.