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Christian Activists Join Homeless Fight in Vancouver

Main Street squat heads to court.

Monte Paulsen 16 Oct

Monte Paulsen is a contributing editor at The Tyee. He welcomes feedback via e-mail and invites respectful commentary in the online discussion below.

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Makeshift tent camp on vacant lot. Photo M. Paulsen

A group of Christian activists who erected a homeless camp in the Downtown Eastside last weekend will go to court this Friday seeking to squat the city-owned property indefinitely -- or at least until they can argue before B.C. Supreme Court that Vancouver's burgeoning homeless population has a legal right to occupy such sites.

Streams of Justice erected a small tent village on the empty lot at 950 Main St. late Sunday afternoon. The drug- and alcohol-free camp was established to draw attention to the failure of governments and Olympic organizers to meet promises of new social housing to be built in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"This site is owned by the City of Vancouver and designated for social housing. The Province of British Columbia ended its last fiscal year with a $4.1 billion surplus," said Streams of Justice spokesman Dave Diewert.

"So we've got the land. And we've got the money. But we have no homes." Diewert said. "We are here to bear witness to this injustice."

'It was pretty chaotic'

An entourage of city staff and police arrived at the encampment on Monday, with the apparent intent of evicting the squatters.

"We were told the city was going to shut us down," Diewert said. "We were told the police would give us 90 minutes to clear out."

But a lawyer representing Streams of Justice had earlier that morning filed court papers seeking to delay city action until a hearing could be scheduled. News reporters, lawyers and agitated onlookers buzzed around the small tent village for several hours on Monday while representatives for the city and the protestors negotiated. The squatters themselves appeared more amused than ruffled; most sat in folding chairs around the camp's red-and-white checkered kitchen table.

The B.C. Supreme Court agreed to hear the request this Friday morning at 9:45 a.m. And by mid-afternoon, the city agreed to take no action until after that time, though Vancouver police said they will continue to monitor the camp.

"It was pretty chaotic," Diewert said. "I think it was a last-minute decision on the part of the city."

The city's decision effectively allows Streams of Justice to remain on the site for the duration of Homelessness Action Week. Diewert said that his group does not presently have the resources to continue the squat past Sunday, but would consider handing the camp off to others.

"Tent cities are interim measures for people in desperate circumstances," Diewert said. "That is not what we are asking for. We're asking for the resources to be available to put into the construction of homes."

City controls 22 sites

The squat site, 946-950 Main St., is one 22 properties owned or optioned by the City of Vancouver and reserved for social housing. (Nineteen are detailed on this map, and another three have yet to be added.)

Nine of those sites -- four in Downtown South, three in the Downtown Eastside and one each in False Creek and Coal Harbour -- are already zoned to accommodate buildings containing 80 or more suites.

Those sites, along with recently obtained Cordova Street property (the former Drake strip club) and the soon-to-be demolished Marie Gomez Place, are the locations at which some form of low-barrier supportive housing is most likely to be proposed. Low-barrier housing is for people who are homeless or at high risk of homelessness, but may not yet be willing to participate in treatment for addictions or mental health problems. Low-barrier housing offers more supervision and access to support services than a typical residential hotel, but not as much as abstinence-based supportive housing.

Several of the remaining sites -- including those in Dunbar, Fairview and Mount Pleasant -- are not currently zoned for such high density. Those sites would be more likely to house stabilized residents with a track record of ongoing recovery from mild mental illness and/or addiction.

The Dunbar site was the focus of resistance in late 2006. An anonymous entity calling itself NIABY -- for Not In Anyone's Back Yard -- expanded its campaign against supportive housing into a city-wide crusade, urging residents to oppose "the proposed drug addict supportive housing projects for 16th and Dunbar, 7th and Fir, 41st and Fraser, or any other potential supportive housing project for drug addicts."

'All these resources, and no homes'

An overwhelming body of evidence suggests that housing homeless individuals is far cheaper than shuffling them through shelters, jails and emergency rooms. The difference, of course, is that providing homes costs more money upfront than dispatching another police car.

Self-contained residential suites such as those proposed for the Vancouver sites average about 320 square feet each. Housing planners estimated such small suites cost about $200,000 apiece to build. Thus, building the 3,200 units recommended by the Inner-City Inclusivity Housing Table -- a committee commissioned by the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee and facilitated by B.C. Housing -- would cost roughly $640 million.

"The province has $250 million that is already earmarked for homelessness, but which remains locked in a bank account," complained Streams of Justice spokesman Diewert.

"And we've got billions of dollars of surpluses. The province announced a $1.6 billion surplus from the first quarter of this fiscal year. Likewise, the federal government has a $6.4 billion surplus for its first fiscal quarter," he said. "We have all these resources, and no homes."

"Vancouver is too much capitalism and not enough community-ism," added Dwayne Koe, one of the dozen or so Streams of Justice members who helped erect the Main Street squat. A homeless Aboriginal from Aklavik, Northwest Territories, Koe said if he weren't sleeping at the squat, he'd be "in some alley, maybe under somebody's porch."

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