Struggle Against Homelessness in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside
An Interview with Dave Diewert
"we're...a faith-based social justice movement"
By Shannon Bundock
Streams of Justice is a local Christian social justice organization that believes in "the relentless struggle for social justice, the unwavering affirmation of human dignity, and the joyful stance of compassionate solidarity". With this foundation, Streams of Justice took action against homelessness in October 2007. They began a squat action in Vancouver's poorest neighborhood, the downtown eastside, to raise awareness about homelessness and challenge the provincial and municipal governments to address the housing crisis. After facing threats from the city of Vancouver to pack up the squat less that 24 hours after it was established, Streams of Justice won the battle to maintain the site for the duration of "Homelessness Action Week" (October 15 - 21, 2007). Fire This Time had the opportunity to speak with Dave Diewertt, a main organizer of Streams of Justice, to discuss the crisis of homelessness, and how his organization is fighting back.
Shannon: Just last month Streams of Justice erected a homeless camp in the downtown eastside, which drew attention to the growing crisis of homelessness in Vancouver. What motivated you and Streams of Justice to take this action?
Dave: I think that the increasing awareness that there are all these resources, municipally, provincially and federally, yet there is nothing being put towards increasing the number of social housing units in the city. As homelessness increases and the government starts to conclude this massive wealth of surplus, it just seemed completely outrageous and unacceptable for this to be going on. There needed to be some awareness raising event or action to be taken.
This particular lot was specially designated, on the city of Vancouver website, for social housing, and it had been so for more than 5 years, and still remained empty. So it became a location where we felt we could bring the issue to the fore.
Shannon: How did the city of Vancouver react to your actions?
Dave: They reacted initially by saying that they were going to close the squat down and ask us to leave. We got onto the site October 14th at about four in the afternoon. We set up things and by two the next day they were going to ask us to leave. We launched a legal process, we were seeking a temporary injunction, that argued essentially that since there is not sufficient housing, not sufficient shelter, that you can't criminalize people for sleeping outside and for sheltering themselves on city property. So that legal process had been put place Monday morning and there was a hearing set up Friday morning. So when the city came down to shut us down they had just recently realized that they were this legal dispute so they agreed to let the legal process be carried through and let us stay on the site.
Shannon: What do you see as the main factors that have contributed to this housing/homelessness crisis and who is responsible?
Dave: The main factors are that there is not sufficient housing. As land prices have gone up, real estate has skyrocketed and in the downtown eastside there has been a move to increasingly gentrify the area, to purchase these SRO's [single room occupancy hotels] that are falling apart, fix them up, and flip them into student housing or whatever. So there is a net loss of housing for poor people. In addition to that there is the reality of people finding it increasingly difficult to get onto social assistance and when they get on social assistance the funds available are very inadequate to find any kind housing, so there is no rental housing available for people. All of these things combined create a situation where homelessness is increasing and people can't access places to stay.
The province is not building more social housing, at least not at a rate that is necessary to actually have an impact on the situation of homelessness in the city. They purchase hotels that are already the last stop before homelessness and they increase shelter times and availability, but they are not building new housing at any significant rate at all. So the problem continues to be there despite all these announcements that they are taking action. In fact very little housing is being built.
Shannon: Can you tell us about how Streams of Justice is responding, and what your plans are for continuing to confront the problem and how people can support?
Dave: One of the things that we're doing as a faith-based social justice movement, one of our areas of focus is to begin to awaken the Christian faith community to issues of justice and these very local situations that people are facing. One of our aims is to continue an educational campaign of trying to get the word out. We're developing a multi-media presentation, a dramatic presentation that will do that. In addition, we're going to continue to explore other possibilities for public action, raising awareness in the general public and trying to exploit the situation and call for a response.
I think that the situation, despite all these announcements, is in very rough shape, as in recent events such as the Pandora apartments completely falling apart from neglect on the part of the landlord and people left with no where to go. In the light of the upcoming Olympics, the grand spectacle of capitalism that is going to have disastrous effects, especially for poor people, I think these kind of things continue to put pressure on poor people in our city and there needs to be a resistance against it.
Thank you Dave.
Streams of Justice meets every Monday night (except holidays) at 7 pm at Grandview Calvary Baptist Church. 1803 E. 1st Avenue, Vancouver, BC
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