CANADA, TORONTO: 'Pope Squat' establishes new social housing in Toronto !

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

Graeme Bacque <>

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