On Tuesday May 1st, members of Our Homes Can’t Wait (OHCW) coalition staged a public protest by blocking entrances to City Hall and interrupting business operations for the day.
This public protest was in response to Mayor Gregor Robertson’s betrayal of the promise he made to low-income residents of the Downtown Eastside two years ago. After attending a public meeting in the Carnegie Centre, Robertson promised that the City of Vancouver would develop 58 W. Hastings as 100% social housing that low-income residents on welfare and pension can afford. 58 W. Hastings has since become a symbol for Downtown Eastside low-income community residents – a symbol of hope that homelessness can be stopped, that we can fight for homes and win, and a symbol of the kind of housing we need: resident controlled and affordable.
During the period leading to the rezoning application public hearing at City Hall in January, Minister Selina Robinson announced the Provincial government will contribute $30 million to build the 58 W. Hastings housing project. In the meantime, Chinatown Foundation was brought in as a community partner and offered to raise another $30 million for the project. The city also brought in Vancouver Coastal Health and offered them two floors, which will operate as a one-stop shop for medical services for Downtown Eastside residents. Coastal Health was not asked to make a financial contribution to the capital cost of the construction. These charity and medical bureaucrat partners were signs that 58 W. Hastings was going off track.
At the time of the housing package announcement, OHCW learned about another setback. According to Chinatown Foundation, there is a 10% annual increase on construction costs in Vancouver. Suddenly the assurance of building 58 W. Hastings at 100% welfare and pension rates was uncertain. In the meantime, the city stopped communicating with Downtown Eastside residents and advocates. We were kept in the dark about what was in store for the 58 W. Hastings project at a time when homelessness had reached 1,200 people, the highest it’s been in the history in the DTES.
Lacking direct communication, and with signs pointing towards betrayal of Gregor’s promise, uncertainty and distrust built between decision makers at City Hall and residents of the Downtown Eastside. “We are confused,” said Laural Gaudette of Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP). “Our community vision called for 100% welfare and pension rates. The mayor accepted it and signed the promise that housing at 58 W. Hastings will be 100% welfare and pension rates. Now, we hear contradictory statements: the city says it will be 30% and the province says 50%. Which is which?”
The Our Homes Can’t Wait coalition, which spearheaded the 58 W. Hastings project, felt that we had no choice but to take to the streets and remind elected officials that housing is a human right. In the streets, we could make our community’s needs clear. “Low-income and homeless people are not disposable!” said Kell Gerlings of Raise the Rates, a community-based organization that makes a connection between housing justice and poverty. “We need action: we need the government to fight for measures that actually make living with dignity possible. This means rent control, building and preserving 100% welfare and pension rate social housing. It means raising income assistance rates so no one has to live so far below the poverty line.”
On Mayday, the international workers’ holiday and day of action, Our Homes Can’t Wait stopped patiently waiting for word on what would happen with 58 W. Hastings and stepped up our disruption. Starting at 8am, before staff arrived at work, delegates from member groups of Our Homes Can’t Wait and supporters blockaded the 9 entrances to Vancouver City Hall, stopping anyone from getting in. Our goal was to stop the regular operation of City business to declare that business as usual is sacrificing the homes and lives of thousands, and to call for the Mayor to live up to his promise.
I was standing outside one of the side doors with four other protesters when two VPD officers walked by and started a conversation with us. One of them, who introduced himself as the team leader, wanted to know what we were asking for.
“We are asking for housing justice,” I told him. “We are here in support of low-income residents who want to remain in their community and not be displaced by gentrification.”
“How long are you planning to be here?” he asked.
“All day,” I said to him.
“As long you are peacefully protesting for housing, you are free to do it as long as you want. If you have any problem, come and see me,” he told us.
We tried to wrap our minds around why City Hall refrained from unleashing the police to arrest protesters. A member of OHCW suggested that with the municipal elections looming in the fall, Vision did not want to arrest peaceful protesters who are asserting their rights to social housing. Mayor Gregor was elected based on his promise to end homelessness in the DTES. Residents are reminding him about his promise. It was a powerful message. It was a dynamic protest with a diverse community of supporters. Seniors showed up, college students, housing advocates came out with banners and songs. It was a strong political statement that people can no longer watch as their communities are destroyed.
OHCW coalition organizers were clear. No one was allowed to enter City Hall, but we did not stop anyone who wanted to leave the building. I spoke with a Carnegie staff who asked us to allow them to deliver food for the Carnegie cafeteria, downtown. Since the Carnegie kitchen is under renovations, meals are prepared at City Hall and delivered to the Main & Hastings location. We made an exception for the volunteers to enter and collect the food for Carnegie.
During the blockade, the Mayor and Council spoke to reporters in the city hall gardens.
“We are still committed to building 58 at 100% welfare and pension rates,” said the mayor, “but we are not able to get into our offices and do the work.”
By 2:00 PM organizers of the protest felt that their mission was accomplished. They attracted media attention and were able to tell their story. And despite all evidence to the contrary, Mayor Robertson claimed that he is still committed to building 58 W. Hastings at welfare and pension rates. Our eyes and ears remain open.