[Hpn] 'Pope Squat' establishes new social housing in Toronto!

Graeme Bacque gbacque@colosseum.com
Fri, 26 Jul 2002 15:51:11 -0400


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With the eyes of the world currently focused on Toronto as  World Youth Day 
events get underway here this week, attention has been brought to our 
escalating crisis of homelessness with a spirited march through the 
Parkdale neighborhood ending in the dramatic takeover of an abandoned 
building on King Street West.

Organized by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, the Pope Squat aims to 
bring international attention to a situation where over 60,000 families are 
waiting for up to ten years for subsidized housing; where conditions at 
many of our emergency shelters  fail to meet even the minimum standards 
established by the United Nations for refugee camps, and where upwards of 
500 economic evictions happen every week.  The Provincial government has 
stonewalled repeatedly on any new housing initiatives, and just last 
Thursday Toronto mayor Mel Lastman publicly expressed his wish to be able 
to 'sweep' Toronto's homeless from the streets.

This event also highlights a growing political squatters' movement in 
Canada, following on the heels of similar actions in Montreal, Ottawa, 
Quebec City, Vancouver and Toronto within the past year.  With governments 
having apparently abandoned any effort to meet the needs of  poor people in 
Canada, it has become increasingly apparent that the only way people can 
obtain  housing is to take it for themselves.

As the Pontiff received hundreds of thousands of youthful pilgrims at the 
nearby Canadian National Exhibition grounds, people began to gather in a 
small park near Queen Street West in Toronto's Parkdale neighborhood. The 
crowd quickly grew to more than 1,500 as hiphop music blared from a 
portable sound system and a delicious venison stew (many thanks to the 
residents of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory for providing this!) was being 
served. A sizable cadre of helmeted cops hung back across the street, 
accompanied by a priest wearing a Kevlar vest. (Maybe the Boys in Black 
were looking for divine intervention?)

Following a number of short speeches the crowd spilled northward out of the 
park, quickly filling all four lanes of Queen St. W.  Led by a group of 
drummers and a saxophonist and chanting 'Fight for housing, fight to win!' 
and 'What would Jesus say? "Build housing today!" ' the crowd moved west, 
stopping briefly outside another abandoned building where a fire had 
claimed the lives of two female tenants several years earlier. Doubling 
back east along King Street, the march soon arrived outside a large 
boarded-up house. A huge banner descended from a third-storey window and a 
'no trespassing' sign was torn from the fence as a speaker declared the 
Pope Squat to be open!

Speaking over a megaphone from inside the building, squatters re-stated the 
demands of the action, which include the restoration of rent controls, an 
end to economic evictions, restoring the 22%  which was cut from social 
assistance in 1995 and the construction of at least 2,000 units of new 
social housing a year in Toronto.  Leaflets were handed out to people with 
a schedule of planned events at the site, and small groups began fanning 
out to forage for discarded furniture in the surrounding neighborhood.

The site proved ideal for a number of reasons, being a large, attractive 
building located on a major street, with a sizable backyard. The place had 
once been a rooming house until the company which owned it arbitrarily 
evicted all the tenants more than ten years ago, after which the place sat 
empty. This company has since dissolved and has defaulted on the property 
taxes, which has essentially left the ownership of the place in a complete 
legal limbo.

Following their brutal handling of another building takeover on March 22 
this year during  the Tory leadership convention (during which people were 
tear-gassed, Tasered and more than 60 arrested) the cops appeared 
remarkably cautious in their approach to this event. While there was a 
large police presence, they kept pretty much to their own side of the 
street throughout and made no attempt to interfere with people. As of four 
AM more than a hundred people still lingered outside the building, watched 
by approximately a dozen uniforms from across the street. On our side, 
participants have handled themselves in a consistently responsible and 
disciplined fashion and the organization of the whole action has been 
outstanding.

A full schedule of community-oriented events has been planned for this site 
for most of the next week. including a clean-up and repair party today, 
movies being shown tonight, and a big street festival happening all day 
Saturday. Solidarity has been strong, with different organizations agreeing 
to take support shifts outside the building or prepare meals. The squatters 
themselves have affirmed they have no intention of leaving. The planned 
outside events will also go ahead even if the squatters are evicted. We're 
not going anywhere!

Graeme Bacque
July 26, 2002

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