Karen Juanita Lane is a long-time activist and resident of the DTES who reached out to Red Braid in March to ask for help organizing a squat. Karen’s leadership and initiative were central to making the Stewart Squat happen. On a sunny afternoon a few days before the squat, we sat down to talk about Karen’s experiences in the DTES and her clear-eyed vision of the political possibilities of this moment.
How long have you been a resident of the DTES?
I’ve been coming around here for 40 years. I’ve lived in New West and different parts here and there, but mainly around here. I had about a good 10 years [in the Women’s Shelter, on and off]. I don’t know what helped keep me sane from all of that. I’ve seen so many painful things.
And for those 10 years in the shelter, you had to leave every morning and check in every four hours?
Yeah, in the rain even. You had to carry all your stuff, you couldn’t leave it there. You had to check in every four hours or you’d lose your bed.
How long have you been in the Nora Hendrix modulars?
Only a year.
How safe do you feel there as a Black Indigenous woman?
I don’t feel safe at all. We have more men than women. Lots of violence, police there every weekend. Three stabbings we’ve had, two tasers, bear spraying. That one kid that broke in 26 times in different people’s suites and it wasn’t till he started on the manager till he got asked to leave.
What kind of housing do you think would feel safe, secure, and appropriate for women?
Self-contained suites, with separate balconies, like your own little space for outside, so you don’t have to be mingling too close with the neighbors. Where you don’t have staff to answer to about who you can have come in or not, you know. Where you can do your thing, make your mind up how you like to live and who you’d like to come over. I can’t even have my own son over, I can’t have my grandchildren over because you have to be 25 to get in because of the violence and drug use.
So it doesn’t feel safe and you’re isolated from your loved ones.
Tell me why you’re so interested in starting a squat.
Vancouver has a big, large amount of homelessness. And for the women – I’ve seen women go mentally ill, watching them in the shelter, they come in young and maybe because I was older and had a family and knew what that life and that security felt like, paying bills and things, I owned a home. I know what these things are like, these young people never even had that opportunity, you know. And they come in scared and there’s lots of bullies and drug dealers and they get intimidated and pushed around. I’ve watched them go mentally ill to the point that they can’t even take a bath anymore. That’s a sad thing to watch. I can still pass those girls every day and they don’t even know who I am anymore.
Homelessness just keeps getting worse and worse, and it’s awful to watch. The rich are getting richer, balancing their books on the poor. It’s not right. I’ve been fighting a long time to change things.
People around here aren’t taking the pandemic seriously. I was at the bank and everybody was lined up close, I had to keep stepping back and saying, this is my space. When every day is a crisis, you can’t see into the future. It’s so hard to see into the future because you’re living by the hour, by the minute sometimes. It’s sad, it’s overwhelming.
What do you want all poor and homeless people to hear?
That I really feel that this is the time to reclaim – to take these buildings, because I don’t think we’ll have opportunities to do that any time soon. A lot of these places are empty, and people need to be housed right now. It’s crazy, I don’t understand it. The government won’t do it.
When the crisis first hit I went to Carnegie to talk to OHCW and they said that the government was going to get a hotel for the homeless. I said, are you sure? They said, that’s what they’re saying. Within two days, Carnegie was shut down. So I was really let down by that, because I was excited for that to happen. I’m worried for my son, I’m worried for a lot of people in this park who I know. They don’t have news and TV to follow up on what’s going on in the world.
I really believe we could make a movement, you know. Once people see that this can be done, I believe they will have more faith in it too.
Because a lot of people are like, “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” or they’re scared to get arrested, don’t want to go to jail.
It takes some people to charge ahead, start the movement, and show that it’s possible, who have that courage and vision to see into the future and see what’s possible, to inspire others with action.
Right, yeah. You got to make the action. It’s just like Oppenheimer Park, if we didn’t make the action, none of these people would be here.
Why do you think you are able to see that future and feel inspired by the possibilities of this moment?
I don’t know, I believe in the future. I believe that it’s possible, that’s what I believe. I feel that very strongly.
The Stewart Squat was evicted by the Vancouver Police hours after it was launched, who arrested all 14 squatters, took them to jail, and charged them with Break and Enter. After being released from jail, I did another brief interview with Karen, who was as determined and full of visionary energy as ever.
You just got out of jail for helping to launch and lead the Stewart Squat. How are you feeling?
I’m feeling still empowered, even more. I’m feeling that we need to do this again. They can’t treat people inhumanely. There’s no soap in the jails, it’s filthy in those cells, people should at least be able to wash their hands. That even makes me want to do more.
The way things were, was inhumane there. And knowing that any homeless person or any person that goes in those cells is going to get COVID – they just don’t care about people. And I’m just empowered to do more.
What would you say to folks who say, the police came and you got arrested, so we should give up and not do it again?
My message is: no, we can’t let them win. They’ve been stepping on us since the beginning of time. And it’s time to stop. And it’s time to just keep on moving and keep doing what we have to do. We can’t let them win.