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Housing march and tent city keeps focus on the real message: homelessness

February 15th, 2010 · 10 Comments

No black hoodies or newsbox-stand throwing today.

Instead, activists who organized the rally and march in the Downtown Eastside today did a lot of smart things.

1. They held the rally at Pigeon Park, where there are lots of local people easily available for news crews to interview, people who were happy to talk about everything they think is wrong in the neighbourhood.

2. They had almost exclusively older women, many of them native, giving the speeches at the opening rally, like Elaine Durocher and Stella August. Plus more older native women in button blankets leading the march through the streets afterwards.

3. They had a group of people singing We Shall Overcome, with some harmonizing thrown in, as part of the opening activities — something that evoked old-time civil liberties’ marches and I’m sure brought tears to a few eyes.

4. They emphasized they wanted a peaceful protest.

5. After marching around the block, they set up a tent city on the vacant site owned by Concord Pacific — a move that it’s hard for anyone to complain about without irony seeping in, since vacant Concord land near the waterfront is currently covered with temporary tents for various Olympics festivities.

6. They kept the message on housing and homelessness, with only a few references to the “criminalization of the homeless” — no yelling that police are pigs.

7. The rally ended up drawing a broad range of people, both from the DTES and elsewhere, though I would venture to say very few actual homeless people. I and many others noted that almost everyone we spoke to at the rally, when asked where they lived, either acknowledged that they live in one of the social housing buildings in the Downtown Eastside or they refused to say where in the DTES they live, which pretty much sent the same message. But that’s okay — those who have housing and even jobs are the ones who have the energy to protest about injustice. This isn’t so different from anywhere else.

Now it will be interesting to see what happens next: Will police and Concord just let the Tent City stay for the duration of the Games? Who among the activist community is going to police that tent city? Although not many homeless were at the march, undoubtedly some will show up just because of the communal spirit. But we’ve seen in the past how tent cities and squats can get pretty nasty — only but the blindest social activist recognizes that there are problems with the crime and disorder that can spring up around them.

It will also be interesting to see whether media outlets, drawn down by the tent city, will get educated about the issue. I dropped by the Downtown Eastside Connect centre at Woodward’s, the province-city-housing group media centre half a block from the new tent city, where NBC had just discovered homelessness issues and was scrambling to produce a story with the staff at the centre scrambling to give them something a different story line than “Vancouver has abandoned its homeless on the streets.”

It sure would be great if someone could get into some of the complexities of this story, which is so much deeper than it appears at first glance.

As I said above, the irony is that many of the people at the rally live in social housing. The banner that was unfurled for media to look at on Hastings Street (“Homes Now: Tent to End Homlessness, Gentrification, Criminalization of Poverty”) hangs from Tellier Tower, one of the oldest social-housing projects in the neighbourhood. The Downtown Eastside, I would guess, likely has the densest concentration of social housing of anywhere in Canada, now that Regent Park has been torn down, especially since the province bought up almost two dozen residential hotels in the last couple of years.

At the same time, there was a real failure of will — first by the federal government in 1984, then by the B.C. Liberal government in 2001 — when it came to housing the poorest and most marginal. The last two years has brought a sea change in the province, but where is the federal government? I don’t understand why the protesters aren’t marching on the Canada pavilion. Yes, I know some emphasize the need for a “national housing strategy” but they don’t apply anything like the same vitriol to the feds that they do to the province.

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