On April 1st 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of poor and homeless people and supporters took over the vacant North Surrey Recreation Centre. With support from Red Braid Alliance for Decolonial Socialism, they launched the “Hothouse Squat” and called on others to join the #Squat2Survive COVID-19 movement.
The “Hothouse” squat made a political and legal claim: that warehousing poor people in COVID-19 hothouses like shelters and modular housing is a death sentence, and they have a right to take over vacant buildings to stay safe from the deadly pandemic. The squat argued that forcibly displacing poor, unhoused people back into streets, shelters, and decrepit, rundown modular housing would be a violation of their Section 7 Charter rights, which ensures the right to “security of the person.” But instead of allowing the courts to decide how to interpret the Charter, Canada’s highest law, the Surrey RCMP sent in 15 police officers and a police dog to evict the squat with force.
But the #Squat2Survive movement’s claim that the lives of the communities most vulnerable to dying from COVID-19 matter more than private property is just as strong today as it was yesterday, and the lessons of the Hothouse Squat can only make future squats stronger.
The Hothouse Squat tested the waters and found an unsurprising truth: in Canada, poor and unhoused Indigenous and working class people have no rights. But the #Squat2Survive movement’s claim that the lives of the communities most vulnerable to dying from COVID-19 matter more than private property is just as strong today as it was yesterday, and the lessons of the Hothouse Squat can only make future squats stronger.
“It’s a death sentence for us”: Housing as a frontline defense against COVID-19
Some of the Hothouse Squatters live in supportive modular housing units. Some are formerly unhoused, now renting their own place. A couple are staying in local shelters, and more than a couple can’t even get into shelters and are sleeping on the streets most nights. Stephen said, “I slept on the front porch of this rec centre last night and almost froze to death. Us at the bottom here, who are more susceptible and more at risk [of contracting COVID-19]—they leave us out to feed us to the wolves.”
One of the demands of the #Squat2Survive movement is for the Province to immediately requisition empty hotel rooms to house anyone in need of shelter, where they can actually practice socially distancing. With shelter beds dwindling across the province as service providers shut their doors to new intakes, poor and underhoused people are in desperate need of adequate housing. Within minutes of the “#Squat2Survive COVID-19” banner dropping from the roof of the recreation centre, three homeless people asked how they could join the squat, because they had nowhere indoors to sleep.
In a letter supporting the Hothouse Squat, Pivot Legal Society explains that the Provincial government’s declaration of a state of emergency gives Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth the power “to provide unsheltered and inadequately housed people with self-contained units immediately.” The Province’s Emergency Program Act empowers the state to “acquire or use any land or personal property considered necessary to prevent, respond to, or alleviate the effects of an emergency or disaster.” Pivot explains that if Farnworth will not act, then Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry could do the same thing using the Public Health Act.
Minister Farnworth and Dr. Henry refuse to use the powers available to them to move thousands out of dangerous shelters and temporary modular housing and into empty hotel rooms and apartments. Red Braid organizer Ivan Drury said, “It’s not a question of ability. The government has the power to put people in hotel rooms. What does it mean that the BC NDP can house people in hotels and are not? It means they do not consider it necessary to house the homeless. They do not think stopping the spread of COVID-19 in low income communities is necessary.”
COVID-19 thrives on neoliberalism
While members of the white, middle class public are getting increased access to resources like Employment Insurance and housing subsidies, poor people’s access to survival resources is shrinking. And the few resources the BC government is offering, like housing and shelter where self-isolation is possible, continue to be cordoned off with gatekeeping policies and a neoliberal distrust of the poor.
“Laying out mats on the floor of an empty auditorium makes no sense when there are thousands of empty hotel rooms across the province.”
When poor Indigenous people go to the hospital, doctors often refuse to prescribe drugs because they racially profile them as “drug-seeking.” Policies that restrict access to resources reinforce the neoliberal policy of treating poor people as “resource-seeking,” as if they are using the public health crisis to access housing and social supports that are not rightly theirs. Rather than treat the pandemic amongst the poor, the government treats the poor as an untrustworthy, undeserving population, whose access to life-saving resources must be arbitrated individually.
While some cities, like Vancouver, have announced that they are setting up emergency shelters, Red Braid organizer Isabel Krupp pointed out that, “laying out mats on the floor of an empty auditorium makes no sense when there are thousands of empty hotel rooms across the province.” And in order to access the emergency shelter, poor people must first prove that they are already sick by seeking a nurse’s referral.
Tana Copperthwaite, who is a former shelter and tent city resident, explained, “If you put 40 people in one big room and one person gets sick, you all get sick. So it’s a death sentence for us. We need to be able to get into hotel rooms, apartments, empty housing—somewhere we can be safe and practice social distancing.”
Colonialism + COVID-19 = Death!
But housing, on its own, is not enough to shield our communities from the worst dangers of COVID-19. COVID-19 is as much a social phenomenon as it is a biological virus, which means that how it spreads, who it infects, who dies, who lives, and the impact of public health precautions is determined by structures of power like imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy.
For Indigenous people, the struggle for health and survival is intimately tied to a struggle for sovereignty against occupying Canada.
It’s easy to see that Canada’s response to COVID-19 prioritizes, first and foremost, the profits of banks, bosses, and landlords. As a poor people’s movement, #Squat2Survive opposes the government’s bailout of capitalists and landlords. But the danger of using “poverty” as a category to understand the impact of COVID-19 is that it doesn’t capture how as a white supremacist, capitalist, colonial, and imperial nation, Canada only recognizes white, cisgendered, settler, home-owning, straight, male citizens as members of the “public.” To unite and fight COVID-19, the #Squat2Survive movement has to assert its power as made up of mixed communities of Indigenous and working class people of different genders and races, with different relationships to the nation of Canada.
The Hothouse Squat’s Indigenous Women Warriors’s founding declaration, “Colonialism + COVID-19 = Death,” argues that having Indigenous-only spaces is crucial within the #Squat2Survive movement. For Indigenous people, the struggle for health and survival is intimately tied to a struggle for sovereignty against occupying Canada. They point out that for poor, underhoused, homeless, and displaced Indigenous people, social distancing can only amount to isolation, and is a continuation of Canada’s long colonial attack on Indigenous kinship. Against Canada’s racist and colonial public health policies, the Women Warriors assert that “our family is not an inventory of possessions a man has as the head of the household. Our family includes all our people.”
Maggie, a homeless squatter who is from the Katzie nation, said, “I have huge concerns about COVID-19 and how Aboriginal people are being left out. Considering that half the homeless population, especially in the Downtown Eastside, are Aboriginal, something should be done. I’m speaking from my own perspective, for my children and their future.”
Having Indigenous-only spaces, as well as women-only spaces, within our squats form the heart of the #Squat2Survive movement’s collective power against colonial, capitalist, patriarchal Canada.
Police force and tactics of counter-force
The Hothouse Squatters left the North Surrey Recreation Centre chanting, “Squat to survive!” and “Kill COVID, not us!” They gathered in front of the building for an impromptu press conference, telling the media that this was the first—but not the last—squat to defend our communities from Canada’s deadly mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Hothouse Squat made a claim that is both political and legal. Isabel Krupp explained to reporters after the eviction of the squat, “Our political claim is that people’s lives are more valuable than property.” Within Canada, the contradiction between life and property is always present, because settler colonialism and capitalism place the interests of property owners against the interests of Indigenous people and subaltern working class people. But the COVID-19 crisis makes these contradictions all the more stark. The Hothouse Squat demonstrated that unhoused people clearly do not have access to the resources they need to follow self-isolation protocols, but by breaking property law and using vacant space, they can collectively improve their safety.
Red Braid, the group that initiated the #Squat2Survive movement, says that the COVID-19 crisis and the contradictions it exposes makes Canada’s property law vulnerable to a legal claim called a Charter challenge. Canada’s laws are built to defend the colonial and capitalist social order, and enshrine property as a fundamental value. The foundation of this legal system is the Charter, and any law that the courts decide contradicts the Charter is struck down. The legal claim of the #Squat2Survive movement is that enforcing trespass, and therefore Break and Enter laws, against people seeking shelter from the imminent danger of COVID-19 would contradict Section 7 of the Charter.
After being evicted from the Hothouse Squat, organizer Isabel Krupp explained to the media:
“What we saw happen when we took over the building was that police entered the building because not all of the doors were secured. Police entered into the building and disregarded the Charter claim we were making. They disregarded poor, homeless, Indigenous peoples’ Charter right to security of the person. It’s up to the courts, not the cops, to decide where the “balance of convenience” lies between enforcing trespass law and unhoused peoples’ Charter rights. The City and RCMP moved in and evicted us to stop us from making that legal claim. They decided that they had the force they need to take over the building and evict the people who were in there seeking shelter, security, and the ability to keep themselves healthy. The message that the cops and the City of Surrey sent is that poor people don’t have rights in this country.”
The rapid RCMP eviction of the Hothouse Squat shows the #Squat2Survive movement that the police and governments will use force to block poor people from making a Charter challenge against trespass and property law. Krupp explained, “The cops didn’t let the courts make that decision. Police got into the building because we didn’t do a good enough job barricading the doors.” The Hothouse Squat relied on the legal protection of a Charter claim and did not defend the squat with physical barricades, which showed that subaltern movements cannot rely on the colonial and capitalist apparatus of law for protection. Even during a deadly pandemic that threatens the lives of millions of people, police will not hesitate to violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to defend property.
The lesson is that the next squats in the #Squat2Survive movement should consider tactical questions beyond the law, like choosing a building that can be barricaded and defended against the police, because if they can get in, they will evict people and rob squatters of the opportunity to take a Charter challenge to court.
Canada has left us no choice: Squat to survive!
Roberto is a Mayan man from Guatemala who had slept outdoors the night before the squat, and who was evicted back to sleep on the streets again. Sitting inside the warm and dry building that police were preparing to make vacant again, Roberto said, “We fight together for our rights, to live and survive!” After being evicted, Stephen called out to bystanders coming to and from the SkyTrain station, “This is just the beginning, we’re only starting this fight and we hope that others will join us. All you people in the street, get together and take over a building or an empty house!”
The Hothouse Squat was evicted, but the #Squat2Survive movement is unstoppable.