Toronto Squatters Defend "Home"

Tom Boland (
Wed, 17 Dec 1997 13:17:10 -0800 (PST)

By Jim Rankin, Toronto Star Staff Reporter 12-16-97

At night, portly raccoons creep into the makeshift bedrooms at the
``Rooster Squat,'' scrounging for food and occasionally licking the
faces of the young and homeless.

A smoldering pile of old, salvaged lumber billows smoke through a hole
in the roof, providing the only heat in the cold concrete labyrinth of
fetid rooms and towering silos. In some rooms, it stinks of raccoon
feces, oil and rotting grain.

But to those who call it home - about 20 young street people - the old
Canada Malting Co. on Lake Shore Blvd. E. at Queen's Quay is a refuge.
(A giant mural of a rooster on the silos earned it its name.)

It's a place where the people sleeping next to you are the only family
you have. And, unlike life on the streets, there is little worry here of
being beaten up or raped, the squatters say.

On Jan. 15, the City of Toronto wants to clear out the squatters and
auction off the abandoned site, which contains toxic waste and has been
officially condemned.

One false step could mean a 20-metre fall

It is being sold in a tax sale. The property is being auctioned through
newspaper ads to the highest bidder, provided the bid covers close to $3
million in back taxes owed on the land, according to a city official.

Yesterday, the squatters vowed to stay in the building beyond the
deadline unless city officials find them suitable alternative housing.

And they invited politicians, particularly Toronto mayor-elect Mel
Lastman, to come to their home this Sunday1 for a ``squat awareness
day'' tour of the place.

``I'd like to personally invite them to come,'' said Moose, a towering
30-year-old transvestite with a mane of curly black hair who has lived
in the building on and off since it was abandoned eight years ago.

``I don't think the government will let us stay here, but I'm not going
to let them take it away without giving us an alternative,'' said Moose,
who led reporters into the site wearing high heels.

``If they're coming to carry us out, that's what they'll have to do. The
squat will be defended.''

Aside from contaminants on the site, the silos and a neighbouring lab
building are a mess of broken windows and are peppered with gaping holes
in their concrete floors. In one room, one false step would mean a
20-metre fall.

Pam Colburn, Toronto's chief building officer, said she fears what could
happen when drugs and alcohol are added to an already dangerous

``And what really concerns me, frankly, is that, within this little bit
of time (before the sale), the more attraction that gets directed
towards this site, the more likelihood you're going to have people just
wander through for the sake of seeing what this thing looks like,''
Colburn said.

``And it's extremely dangerous. It's scary.''

Colburn also noted that emergency crews would face a risk should anyone
fall in the structures. Last fall, crews had to rescue several squatters
from a third-storey window after a fire set for warmth got out of

A small amount of toxic chemicals - experts called it a ``toxic soup'' -
was also released in that fire.

The squatters, with the support of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
and other advocacy groups for the homeless, are demanding the city
provide another living space - one with electricity and heat.

They say the city has more than 250 boarded-up residential properties
and more than 100 vacant commercial properties that would be suitable.

The coalition's John Clarke said he and others met with city officials
recently to negotiate alternative housing for those who don't want to
live in hostels or sleep on the street.

They didn't get what they wanted, said Clarke. The city didn't offer to
relocate the squatters. Instead, it referred the squatters to a help
line and rooming house information centre.

``It's an outrage to say that there's no alternative,'' said Clarke, who
visited the site yesterday.

The squatters all agree the place is unsafe. (One former
squatter-turn-advocate stepped squarely on a rusty nail yesterday while
leading reporters inside.)

But for now, the squatters say it's all they have.

``This one's not too bad,'' said Moose's wife, a 19-year-old who goes by
the name ``Cabbage Patch.'' Originally from Montreal, she has lived on
the streets and in squats for seven years.

``It's not so much the building, it's the people. This one, it's like
family. A lot of hostels, they want to separate me from my husband. I've
been raped before in a hostel. Hostels don't exactly have the best

``At least there's safety in numbers here.''