Published in The Martlet newspaper | October 24, 2002 | Circulation: 17,000
By the dim light of candles, the maze of rooms, kitchens, and corridors of Victoria’s homeless squat flickered with shadows last Wednesday night.
Street people and their supporters moved about confidently, finding their way up the dark stairs to a midnight organizing meeting, only eight hours after members of the Anti-Poverty Coalition (APOV) cracked open the doors of the building that had been abandoned for 15 years.
Following a wave of similar housing squats across Canada, from Toronto to Vancouver, activists occupied the Pandora Street building on Oct. 16 and hung a banner from the roof that read, “Build Housing Now.”
“Why the hell should we let somebody own the building for 15 years who doesn’t use it?” asked a squatter who identified herself only as Sarah. “We’re the ones who need it, not them.”
Sarah, 17, has been homeless for seven years, she said.
On Thursday, a day after the squat opened, the building’s owners handed squatters a court injunction and ordered them to leave. In response, squat organizers called a support rally for 6 p.m., which attracted around 100 people and the media.
Faced with the threat of a police invasion, all but two homeless men abandoned the building. At 11 p.m., at least four police cars, two fire trucks and several ambulances parked in front of the squat. A witness described about 25 police officers emerging from the cars wearing bike helmets.
“It was like they rehearsed it,” said UVic student Serena Katoaka, who was among seven supporters chatting outside the squat entrance when police arrived. “They all emerged at the same time in formation.”
Katoaka said one of the police leaders pushed her out of the way, even though she said she was facing away from him and not intentionally blocking his path.
“He pushed me with both his hands on my back,” she said. “He came up behind me and pushed me. It was intentional, it wasn’t like he just walked into me. I asked him not to push me and said I’d be willing to move.”
Police then set up floodlights and washed the building in bright light powered by fire trucks. Witnesses said officers searched every corner of the spacious building for people.
But according to one of the building’s owners, Peter Laughlin, the issue was more about trespassing and safety than homelessness.
Laughlin said he is a member of the company that purchased the building last month. The company, an unnamed, numbered Victoria company, develops properties across Victoria and has plans to turn 528-532 Pandora into residential housing.
“These people are trespassing on private property,” Laughlin said. “We will take appropriate action to have them removed. We can occupy the building and nobody else can occupy the building. Our concern is for the health and safety of all Victorians, not just a minority.”
Overhearing this remark, one squat supporter asked Laughlin how health and safety could be addressed while people sleep on the streets.
Laughlin responded that the building did not have adequate fire safety to protect against the danger of a fire if it were inhabited.
For many supporters of the squat, the inadequacy of the building for housing reinforced their demands that lodging for Victoria’s homeless must be both affordable and safe.
“It’s about time we start reclaiming these derelict buildings to start providing social housing for people who need it,” said squat supporter Bobby Arbess. “The market economy is denying a lot of people the basic right to housing.
“Housing is viewed as a commodity. If you don’t have the money to get a roof over your head, the system tells you to live on the street.”
APOV released a set of the squat’s demands, including that the City of Victoria buy back the building from the current owners and turn it into social housing, and that the provincial government reverse its cuts to social assistance. This summer, the government slashed its housing allowanced in welfare payments.
On Friday, APOV delivered a letter to Mayor Alan Lowe’s office, but when office workers disappeared behind a plastic barrier the activists folded signed letters of support into paper airplanes and launched them over the wall into the office.
APOV said, though short-lived, the squat successfully raised awareness of Victoria’s housing crisis.