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Homeless Activists Scoring Points

Even reporters upset with Vancouver mayor’s response.

Tom Barrett 3 Nov

This is the first of an occasional series Tom Barrett will be writing about housing and homelessness in Vancouver and beyond. Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee. You can read his previous stories here.

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Squat near City Hall on Oct 31. Photo APC.

Scenes from a housing crisis:

It's Tuesday afternoon and David Cunningham is rallying about 100 supporters on the lawn behind Vancouver City Hall.

The veteran Downtown Eastside shit-disturber has said the group plans to occupy city hall to protest council's lack of action on homelessness. Occupying city hall, Cunningham says, is the only way the group will ever get to talk to Mayor Sam Sullivan.

"We're going to go in through the front door," he declares, as the crowd whoops. The protesters, who came by bus from the Downtown Eastside, look serious. One wears a black helmet and gas mask. Others wear bandanas over their faces.

Chanting, "Social housing now," they march. But as police and security guards watch from the city hall entrances, the crowd heads in the opposite direction -- down the hill along Cambie, almost to Broadway.

There they occupy a building -- not city hall, but an abandoned city-owned apartment house.

Stacked pennies

Inside city hall, the Anti-Poverty Committee's actions seem to have caught the politicians off guard. The mayor calls a press conference for the next morning to address the homeless issue, but when the media show up, Sullivan mostly just emphasizes his powerlessness.

On the table in front of the mayor, an assistant has laid out 100 pennies; 92 pennies are spread out to Sullivan's left and another eight are neatly stacked to his right. It's a visual gimmick to reinforce a message that Sullivan has tried to deliver many times before -- the city gets only eight cents out of every tax dollar, with the rest going to Victoria and Ottawa.

Housing, and the issues around homelessness, such as addiction and mental health, aren't in the city's jurisdiction, Sullivan stresses. He's got a point, but the message isn't going over today.

In the last few weeks, Sullivan has been criticized in the media by some of the people you might expect to see cheering for a Non-Partisan Association mayor in the midst of a property boom.

Peter Wall, of Wall Financial Corp., has called Sullivan "almost a non-item." Bob Rennie, the condo king, has said, "Sam should stop with the wheelchair mayor and start just being a mayor."

A profile of Sullivan in B.C. Business Magazine by the Vancouver Sun's Frances Bula talks about rumours that NPA councillors Suzanne Anton and Peter Ladner are lining up to steal his job. Some see the mayor as being unfocused and uninterested in the details of civic administration, a puppet of senior staff.

Now, in the midst of these knocks and rumours, Sullivan is faced with a crisis in low-cost housing.

Pressure mounting

The city's action plan on homelessness says Vancouver needs 800 new units of social housing a year. But a background paper from the mayor's office can boast of no more than "almost 500 units" of low-income housing to open "over the next few years."

In September, the Pivot Legal Society reported that the stock of low-cost housing in the city is shrinking, and predicted that homelessness could triple by the time Vancouver hosts the 2010 Olympics.

The report seems to have focused activists. A number of coalitions have formed around the issue and are pushing to get the message out.

Last month, homelessness dominated the Union of B.C. Municipalities' annual meeting. An unseasonable cold spell has brought public attention to the city's emergency shelters. And the Anti-Poverty Committee, through a series of squats and demonstrations, has been keeping the issue in the news, and ratcheting up the pressure on council.

In short, it's an opportunity for Sullivan, a leader derided for his lack of leadership abilities, to show some, well, leadership.

Clutching a microphone with both hands, Sullivan tells the news conference that he's "frustrated" by the city's powerlessness on the issue. He says he's going to ask the province for emergency funding to keep single-room occupancy hotels open. He says he's going to organize a "roundtable" discussion on the issue on Nov. 15. Then he has Coun. Kim Capri read out a five-point motion on housing, first presented to council last month.

It all sounds like an anti-climax to the media reps, some of whom are openly hostile to Sullivan. Reporters repeatedly point out that four out of five of Sullivan and Capri's "points" are dependent on the provincial government.

Reporters want to know what Sullivan's going to do about the squat down the street. Kim Kerr, director of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, shouts from the back of the scrum that the squatters are being denied food, water and blankets.

Conference unravels

One reporter compares the squatters to 1960s civil rights protesters in the U.S. Deep South.

Others badger Sullivan to reveal the value of the contract council awarded in-camera to Gordon Campbell's special advisor, Ken Dobell, and a former RAV executive, Don Fairbairn. These two well-connected men are being paid to scratch some money for the homeless from senior governments, foundations and corporations. They're reportedly getting paid $300,000, but Sullivan can't say.

"You can read it in The Courier," the mayor offers.

"Can you tell me now?" asks somebody. "You're right here, you've got a microphone in your hand, you're surrounded by reporters, tell me how much it is, please."

Ask Courier columnist Alan Garr, says Sullivan.

When it's over, city hall veterans call it the most adversarial news conference they've seen in years.

Five hours later, police break up the Cambie Street squat. The action dominates the day's news coverage of the homeless issue; Sullivan's promises are treated as a footnote if they're covered at all.

The squatters promise more protests. So far, in the battle to set the media agenda, it's 1-0 for the protesters.

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