This week, Downtown Eastside residents rallied at the abandoned Pantages Theatre on the 100 block of East Hastings, and painted its facade with slogans like “100% social housing here.”

The Pantages Theatre and adjacent properties (158, 138, 134, 132, 130 East Hastings) have been bought up by developer Marc Williams, of Worthington Properties (for the company’s *interesting* history, read this and this). Last month, the City granted Williams’ request to begin demolition of the heritage building. Development permits have been issued, and Williams will be presenting his plans for a condominium complex to the Development Permit Board on August 22nd 2011.

Downtown Eastside housing advocate Wendy Pederson says a condo development next to the Carnegie Centre would be “like a bomb in the middle of the low-income community.” The Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council has identified the Pantages as one of ten sites to be bought by the City for social housing before the 2011 municipal elections.

It should never have come to this. Williams and the City failed twice to come to an agreement on saving the Pantages Theatre and to bring in other partners to create social housing in the surrounding abandoned buildings.

In 2008, Williams, the City, and the Province devised a plan to save the theatre and build social housing. But the deal fell through at the last minute on Sept 30 2008, shortly before the municipal election.

The preservation project languished under Vision Vancouver’s leadership. In Dec 2009, a disillusioned Heritage Vancouver, which had identified the Pantages as the city’s most important threatened heritage site, announced it would abandon its campaign to save the building.

On Mar 22 2010, City Council met in camera, to discuss purchasing the site. City staff recommended not purchasing the site, and Vision caucus supported this decision.

By deciding to arrest the group of eight, Mayor Robertson made a clear choice, sending a clear message. Robertson is no longer the “End Homelessness” Mayor. Robertson created almost no new social housing during his first term. His one and only significant initiative was opening these emergency shelters, which concluded in this “week of shame” of 200 evictions and eight arrests.

The Broadway and Fraser St shelter was the fourth shelter this week slated for closure by the City and Province. The shelter is the largest of the four, and is widely understood to be the safest for women. The City-owned space will now sit empty for at least the next six months.

A rally was held outside the shelter Friday morning, attended by over 50 shelter supporters. There were speeches by shelter residents and housing advocates. “Some of my friends here are probably going to die if we are forced back to Downtown Eastside SROs,” said one shelter resident.

The evictions were to be complete by 11am, but several dozen residents and advocates occupied the large building. Throughout the day, activists helped residents negotiate with BC housing for better “alternative arrangements.” Activists promised to leave the building only once each shelter resident had secured appropriate alternative arrangements.

Meanwhile a delegation went to Christy Clark’s campaign office, refusing to leave until they met with Premier Clark (see CBC article). Clark sent the Housing Minister Rich Coleman to meet with the delegation. The meeting was sometimes heated, but the feeling of the dozen attendees was that Coleman’s arguments in favour of shelter closures fell apart upon discussion, but he remained extremely stubborn and arrogant. Afterwards, Coleman made nonsensical and rambling comments to the press, as reported by CKNW:

Coleman says everyone has been offered housing, but not everyone has taken it,”Instead of working with us and understanding what the long term plan is, and just working with us on a long term plan, it’s just never enough…And so it’s never enough for them so they want to find something they can hang their hat on every once in awhile to be activists about, and I don’t know why.”

Activist Wendy Pedersen says low barrier shelters are critical to giving people a place to land if housing options don’t work out, “We have a goal and that’s to end homelessness. Until people are not homeless, we’re not going to be happy, and somebody has to keep up the pressure, and that’s our role.”

At 8pm, back at Fraser & Broadway, there remained several dozen people in the shelter, including residents who were committed to keeping the shelter open. The shelter remained filled with the belongings of evicted residents. Police, under orders from City Deputy General Manager Brenda Prosken, told everyone to leave under threat of arrest. The squatters decided that a core group of eight would take a stand to keep the shelter open for all who need it. The group of eight sat in a circle in the middle of the shelter, putting the decision clearly to the City General Manager and Mayor: if you want to shut down this homeless shelter, the fourth in one week, you will have to arrest eight peaceful demonstrators to do so.

The eight were arrested and held in jail overnight in holding cells Main and Cordova. Upon release at 1pm on Saturday, they were greeted by cheering supporters who had set up a jail-solidarity camp

By deciding to arrest the group of eight, Mayor Robertson made a clear choice, sending a clear message. Robertson is no longer the “End Homelessness” Mayor. Robertson created almost no new social housing during his first term. His one and only significant initiative was opening these emergency shelters, which concluded in this “week of shame” of 200 evictions and eight arrests.

And where was Robertson himself throughout the week? Announcing his New Deal with developers to drive through massive, but unspecified, re-development of the central business district. I don’t remember that being a key Vision priority. Maybe they can build a condo tower on the site of the Howe St shelter.

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Five homeless shelters are scheduled for closure in Vancouver this week because the provincial government refuses to regularize funding. Each of the 5 shelters has a capacity of 40 people.

One of the five shelters, at Fir and 4th, was already shut down last Wednesday. About half of those kicked onto the street were seniors, according to Gail Harmer of the Council of Senior Citizens of BC (COSCO). Some of the seniors were offered SRO units in the Downtown Eastside, but all refused because of the deplorable conditions of the SRO units.

Three of the shelters, run by RainCity, are set to be shut down this week. One of these, the Cardero St. shelter in the West End, is set for closure this Wednesday, April 27th, despite support from many local organizations – even the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA). There had been a noticeable reduction in street homelessness in the West End, but since the Cardero St. shelter stopped accepting new residents at the start of April, more people are living on West End streets.

A coalition of organizations is scheduled to hold a press conference at the Cardero St. shelter tomorrow demanding that all the shelters be kept open until appropriate housing is secured for the shelter residents (see media release below).

The fifth shelter is the New Fountain shelter on Cordova St. Earlier today, Housing Minister Coleman announced that he would extend funding for the New Fountain shelter for only two months, and would not fund the other four shelters at all. This announcement was timed to distract from the fact that four shelters are being shut immediately.

The anti-protest bylaw passed by Mayor Robertson this week will hurt the homeless, Darcie Bennett of PIVOT Legal Society told The Mainlander. The bylaw states that any “structure, object, or substance” – including tents – placed on public space without permission of the City Engineer can receive a minimum $1,000 fine. “We are of the opinion that the bylaw should change, to bring it line with homeless peoples’ rights,” says Bennett.

Given that there are no specific provisions allowing the homeless to apply for permits to pitch tents or structures, and given that the $1,000-$5,000 fine is extreme, the bylaw is effectively a prohibition on people pitching tents in public spaces.

In October 2008, the City of Victoria’s bylaw banning tents on public lands was struck down by the BC Supreme Court’s Adams decision for infringing on peoples’ Charter right to shelter. At that time, says Bennett, PIVOT wrote a letter to Vancouver City Council asking that Vancouver’s bylaws be brought in line with the Adams decision, but the City offered no response.

Now, two years later, the City’s new anti-structure bylaw does nothing to protect the right to shelter of those with nowhere else to go. On the contrary, it introduces new exorbitant fines. Last week, PIVOT proposed a series of amendments to the bylaw, including making explicit exceptions for homeless people, but City Council approved the bylaw without incorporating any of these changes.

City lawyers have taken the position that “Adams doesn’t apply here in Vancouver,” and as of yet no one has challenged that position in court.

According to Bennett, the City told PIVOT that the right to shelter on public land does not exist in Vancouver because there is enough shelter space and housing to accommodate everyone. But Bennett points out that the City’s own numbers show there are far more homeless people in the City than shelter beds. On top of that, 5 additional shelters are slated to be shut down next week.

The City admits that the bylaw gives police the power to fine homeless people, but is asking critics to trust that this power won’t be used. The City Administrative report claims “compassionate” intentions toward homeless people, and a “holistic” approach toward homelessness, but offers no actual legal protection or exemption from the bylaw.

This attitude is reminiscent of the Province’s response to critics of the Olympic Kidnapping Act, which gives police the power to forcefully apprehend and detain homeless people against their will. Minister Coleman claimed that the power “probably wouldn’t be used,” but rammed the bill through the legislature nonetheless.

Bennett also criticized the anti-structure bylaw’s impact on political expression. “When you try to use zoning bylaws to regulate political expression, it’s not good governance,” she said.

[caption id="attachment_1702" align="alignnone" width="614" caption="Photo by Blackbird"][/caption]

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 couple hundred people who will be made homeless when the shelters close.

It is significant that Station Street is being used as a basis for closing shelters, 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.


Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories – In response to numerous rapes and assaults that have continuously occurred in the co-ed shelters in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), frontline women-serving organizations recently formed a coalition to demand the City of Vancouver and BC Housing:

1. Open a 24-hour low-barrier women-only drop-in space and shelter in the Downtown Eastside.

2. Build housing for homeless women and children with at least 100 new units to be made available immediately.

3. Implement clear provincial standards for women’s safety in co-ed shelters immediately in all existing and new shelters.

The coalition includes the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, WISH Drop-In Centre, Power of Women Group, and Battered Women’s Support Services.

There were six reported sexual assaults at First United Church, one of Vancouver’s largest shelters. Reverend Rick Matthews of First United Church’s response was that “Some women put themselves at risk because of the way they dress or undress or move around the building, they draw attention to themselves.” In addition, Margaret McNeil of BC Housing said to Alice Kendall of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre “Come on, shit happens, look at Rwanda, look at Libya.” With this being the response, and after months of trying to bring this issue forward and being ignored, the coalition decided it was time to take further action.

On Tuesday, March 22, the coalition of women’s groups sent out a press release and, with support from the community, marched to the BC housing office to voice their demands and initiate dialogue with BC Housing. They were met by over 30 police officers barricading the entrance to the building.

At 3:00pm, the crowd walked up a parkade driveway to witness Dale McMann in a discussion with first nations elders and frontline workers, all of them surrounded by police officers and the media.

Grassroots activism has won social housing above the new library to be built on the 700-block of East Hastings. The development will now include 20 units of family social housing for single mothers and their children. The City of Vancouver’s March 22 media release and press conference announcing the new housing made no mention of the tireless activism that made the housing possible. But the truth is that the City preferred not to build the housing, and had to be pushed every step of the way by residents to make it a reality. Activists held a party of their own to celebrate their housing victory (see Murray Bush’s wonderful article).

“One of the most important things is for us to celebrate our victories,” said Beth Malena at yesterday’s Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC) general meeting. Malena told a crowd of 100 DNC members that the housing victory wouldn’t have happened without them. “The City gave zero credit to you all. They probably don’t want to remember that they needed to be pressed to do something that’s such a no brainer.”

The library struggle

Indeed, City Council had to be dragged, practically kicking and screaming. In the summer of 2010, DNC members Fraser Stewart, Rene Belanger, and others collected 1,500 signatures for a petition supporting social housing above the proposed library. The petition was presented to the Library Board and City Council, and the latter passed a motion to “explore the possibility” of housing on the library. But by Oct 7 2010, City staff asked Council to vote against social housing on the library.

It was clear to activists that very little effort had been made by the City to “explore the possibility” (see this letter to Council). Over 50 housing supporters came to the Oct 7 Council meeting to make their case. See here for the video.

The City already owned the land, but Councilors claimed that there was no money to build the housing above. Infamously, Gregor Robertson claimed “there is no money in the drawers” (this was only months after deep cuts to business taxes). Furthermore, Councilor Geoff Meggs argued passionately that it was so urgent to begin building the library that we could not wait even a few more months to secure funding for social housing. As a last resort, housing advocate Wendy Pederson of the Carnegie Community Action Project asked that, at the very least, the material foundations of the library be built such that they could support possible housing in the future. Council voted to proceed with a stand-alone library, with the caveat that the City manager could have an extra month or two to secure funding for housing.

DNC member Dave Murray told the Vancouver Media Coop that after the meeting “we were so let down, they voted 9-1 against us. I remember walking away very depressed thinking that was that.” But activists did not give up. On Oct 21st, a demonstration was held outside the proposed library site, where kids and their parents demanded both books and housing. The next day, activists confronted the Mayor and Councilors at a $500/plate fundraiser lunch with the business elite, demanding that real action be taken to build housing on the library.