#Squat2Survive! Homeless communities must take over vacant buildings to escape Canada’s COVID-19 hothouses

Eva Bardonnex cut her teeth as a homeless activist living and organizing in Anita Place Tent City in Maple Ridge. Like thousands of poor people across British Columbia, Bardonnex lives in a supportive, modular housing unit and is deeply concerned about how she and other poor people are expected to endure the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bardonnex insists that modular housing projects will be hothouses for the spread of COVID-19. “It’s a death sentence,” she said. “We’re staying in 150 square foot rooms. I share my eating area with my co-residents. If one of us ends up with COVID-19, all of us are going to be exposed. People in modular housing are going to die.”

When asked what she wants, Bardonnex said, “actual housing.” 

Eva Bardonnex speaks to the media about the deadly conditions in supportive modular housing (The Volcano)

But we know that holding our breaths and waiting for the government to swoop in and provide “actual” housing—which we need now, more than ever—means watching our friends and family die. Poor Indigenous and working class people know that government’s definition of a “public” health crisis excludes all Indigenous people, particularly poor and unhoused Indigenous people, and all poor workers, especially those who are racialized, undocumented, criminalized, and homeless.

Our own, collective self-activity is the key to our survival—not the slow-moving, genocidal policies and representatives of a state that are acting fast to save the profits of oil companies, not the lives of the poor. For our communities to survive, we need to do what the government refuses: house ourselves by taking over abandoned and empty buildings.   

Condemned to death shoulder to shoulder

The COVID-19 crisis exposes what modular housing residents like Bardonnex already know: the warehouses that poor people are forced to live in, whether SROs, shelters, or modular supportive housing, are not homes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, all these forms of warehousing leave residents unable to follow public health prescriptions. 

But the government’s only response so far has been to shut down access to critical resources, including meals. While there is talk of opening up “by referral” rooms and shelter beds in Vancouver, and the Province has gestured at similar measures, such as building modular housing, these initiatives treat poor communities as a less-than human threat to the “public,” which the pandemic crisis reinscribes as white, middle class, heterosexual citizen-families.

The Prime Minister’s and Premier’s office calls on the public to socially distance to protect themselves from the possibility of transmission and exposure to the virus. But the Province of British Columbia and City of Vancouver write poor people out of preventative measures entirely, restricting access to COVID emergency shelters to those already sick. The public must be saved and protected from the poor, who become indistinguishable from the virus.

BC Premier John Horgan has made some vague claims that renters won’t be evicted “because of COVID-19” and will be offering some assistance to landlords by paying them 500 dollars directly. The BC NDP’s landlord subsidy, like the Federal government’s mortgage subsidy, will do little for those most at risk of homelessness—people who are regularly evicted for all sorts of reasons, prone to living in overcrowded conditions, and unable to access regular income sources.

Andrew, a homeless resident of Surrey who has recently been unable to access a shelter bed says, “It’s awful that we’re kept outside. We can’t even get into the shelter… we shouldn’t be sleeping on the streets when there are loads of empty, abandoned buildings around.” He points out one of the most naked contradictions that poor people confront everyday: their struggle to meet their basic needs in wealthy cities teeming with wealth and powered by real estate profits. 

Tana Copperthwaite, who supplements her meagre income on welfare by binning, said the government’s response to the pandemic has left out poor people, especially sex workers, whose lost incomes aren’t elibigle for EI. She added, “I’m on disability and I bin bottles. Because of all the closures, I can’t bin for myself. I’m demanding that we get assistance for that income that’s been cut off.” 

In response to COVID-19, Reclaiming Our Homes took over 12 vacant, publicly-owned houses in California. (Reclaiming Our Homes)

We are in it together against the rich

Wanda Stopa, a poor activist who is a long-time Surrey resident, is calling for collective action against the COVID pandemic. She says, “We have to unite to fight this and stay together as a community!”

Red Braid is echoing Stopa’s call for community action to save our lives, because we think it will be deadly to wait for the government to release resources that we know, from experience, will come too late and be well below what’s needed to ensure the safety and health of all poor people. If the state didn’t treat poverty and homelessness as a crisis prior to COVID-19, it certainly won’t take the pandemic as an opportunity to finally end poverty. That’s why it’s up to us to take action to save our own lives. Taking what we need not only puts crucial resources into our hands, it pressures the government to do more to assist poor people. 

Two reasons to squat now

There’s two good reasons to take over empty buildings to house people who are living on the streets, in shelters, in modular housing, and SROs. One, it serves people’s immediate survival needs. People who can’t self-isolate or social distance because of their reliance on public spaces and inadequate shelter have no other options. With shelters across the province closing their doors to new intakes and food services shutting down, poor and homeless people are even worse off than they were before COVID-19.

The second reason to start squatting is that in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, more is possible today than just a few weeks ago, which means that we could potentially make gains today that we’ll be able to hold onto even after the pandemic dies down. 

Legal and political argument for squatting

While Canada has no legal rights offered to squatters that we can take advantage of, we can claim a right to squat by arguing that we have no other way to take care of our health needs during the pandemic except by occupying empty buildings. This is a political message that insists that human life is more important than private property, but it has a potential legal justification too: we could argue that kicking us out of squats is a violation of Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which says all people in Canada have the right to “security of the person.” Forcing people with no other options into the streets or in overcrowded shelters, during a public health crisis, would be a violation of their right to security of the person. The Charter does not force the state to provide security for people under its authority, but it is supposed to stop the police, politicians and courts from putting people unnecessarily in danger.

The Canadian government’s refusal to devote the resources necessary to support the health, safety, and wellbeing of poor people isn’t accidental; it’s the result of a capitalist economic system that prioritizes profit over everything else, and a colonial political and cultural system that treats property as the only social value.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposes the contradiction between colonial property and the health and safety of Indigenous communities, and capitalist profits and the survival of the people we love. Housing is a pinch-point between these contradictory forces. Even the United Nations reports that housing is a “front line defense” against COVID-19, citing that 1.8 billion, or nearly 1 in 4, people on earth are homeless or live in inadequate housing. 

Homeless activists and supporters started the Schoolhouse Squat in Nanaimo in 2018 (Andrew Ainsley/Sandbox Productions)

Squat for poor peoples’ power

The COVID-19 pandemic throws into even greater relief the necessity for poor peoples’ movements to expose, and fight back against, the contradictions of wealth and poverty worldwide. Nearly 1 billion people live in the 50th least developed nations on earth—countries that, because of colonialism and imperialism, lack the money and healthcare infrastructure to cope with COVID-19.

Just as the poor, Indigenous, non-status migrant, and homeless within Canada will be hardest hit by the pandemic nationally, globally, it will be the poorest countries that suffer the most. The global COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to recognize shared struggles and conditions across national borders. We hope that our squats to come in the Vancouver area will inspire other communities closer to home to also step into the breach and #Squat2Survive. Part of what should give us all courage is to think about ourselves as part of a worldwide population of poor people, who vastly outnumber the earth’s rich and middle classes.

In times of crisis, opportunities for radical political action deepen. Squatting is a way we can drive a wedge into this current crisis and pry open the space to address not only the immediate threat of COVID-19, but all the pre-existing crises that it adds onto, like poverty and homelessness. All over the world, poor people are being confronted with the reality that capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism determine who lives and dies during a public health crisis. But it’s a myth that we have to wait for the government to save us, because only our collective action will! 

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