Inside the Hothouse Squat

It was a small walk from our meeting point to the squat, and we all walked in small groups to respect the COVID-19 protocols and to look less heaty. 

Me being the slowest of our little group, I pretty much came in last and ambled in the open door. A friend and I cleared the garbage left on the floor just inside the abandoned Rec Centre by someone who worked there while my comrades unloaded our supplies, and two others went roofside to hang banners reading HOMES NOT PRISON CAMPS and SQUAT2SURVIVE COVID-19! 

This was no sneaky, clandestine operation. The Hothouse Squat in the North Surrey Recreation Centre was meant to meet our people’s needs, and to show the people’s heartfelt desperation to find the safety, the security we so badly need.

The squat was for the poor Indigenous, homeless, drug addicted, alcoholics; all the desirables, undesirables, useful, useless. Our squat said that anyone with a heartbeat has the same right to life that the prime minister of the country has: no better, no worse. The #Squat2Survive movement fights for equal rights for all, homes for all, life for all!

Inside the Hothouse Squat

Formerly unhoused Red Braid Member Tana Copperthwaite (Ivan Drury/The Volcano)

Downstairs, inside the squat, some people scoped out their private spaces; there were so many small empty rooms! What an excellent location for people to make use of. Other people gathered in the trophy room, where tape on the floor, marked off by squatters, showed our group and anyone joining us how to speak and stay within COVID-19 protocols safely. Communication is important inside the squat, but staying healthy with safe distances even more so.

When we were mostly gathered in the trophy room, Isabel did a roll call. We went over our agenda to keep foremost in our minds our more pressing, specific goals: the main and most important idea being we were all in need of space to self isolate. The news had just come out that the death toll had risen in regard to overdoses, worst of all in the Downtown Eastside, because drug users have lost services with the order to self isolate. We die alone due to the drugs not being as pure or safe as they had been; with no one to do drugs with, the death toll during one week was higher than it’s been since 2013! 

The catch-22 for drug users is that self isolation is vital but so is the need to stay in close touch with those in danger of overdose or death by other means. We all need each other; you can’t trust police or politicians to be honest or keep you safe. You need to rely upon others with the same goal to stay alive; to stay safe. In the Hothouse Squat, we created a space where we could be safe from COVID-19 and also keep our community together to be safe from overdoses.

After our roll call meeting, I began to explore the space we were in. We had set up our tent already and sat in the meeting. I didn’t have my phone with me so couldn’t find out what was going on outside. Inside though, the realization of what we were doing was beginning to show on peoples faces: this is Canada and we were partaking in civil disobedience, some of us for the first time ever in the name of a true cause and not a crime or an act of greed.

This act was occurring because we made it happen, because it needed to happen to save lives. This was no joke to any of us. Not only were we trying to aid our brothers and sisters, we were doing this for a good, pure, unselfish reason.

I saw pride on faces that hadn’t had much more than despair etched on them for so long! Guys with open grins on their faces, the guys who never smile, because there’s no reason to, were getting sore cheeks. The spirit gets worn down, but a good cause can change your outlook on things. It was fantastic.

The cops arrive

Then I peeked out of the blinds very carefully and saw a wall of RCMP uniforms in my vision. I turned my walker around and scooted back to the trophy room to tell what I saw, but the outside supporters had already relayed the news. 

I sat down in my taped-off square to wait. Isabel led us in chanting a few slogans and Ma Maa Tea and Destiny sang and beat out the Women’s Warrior Song, which resonated beautifully in that room. Many other voices joined with the two Indigenous women. 

The police entered just then, holding back their drug sniffer dog. The bald macho pig at the front addressed us generally: “You are, I hope, all aware that by breaking in here and trespassing you are committing a crime according to the Criminal Code?” Isabel’s reply was “We are aware that we are establishing our rights as documented in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms!” Mr. Pig turned, waved his fellow officers back towards the exits and that part was over.

We had a big sigh of relief and we made up a new chant on the spot: “Kill COVID, not us!” We all felt energized by how easily the goblins were scared away, so we chanted awhile and felt productive. And then came the second wave of big pigwigs.

Social worker trickery

This time the cops were led by an amiable, round about the middle, unassuming, harmless-looking guy. He introduced himself as Mike Musgrove and said he was from the Surrey Urban Mission Society, known as SUMS. He said he was part of a group looking to solve the very problem we’d come to address right now. Mike said he and others had already looked at this building for the same purpose, but were looking at other places as well and they were working hard on solving the problem. 

Isabel said she’d heard this rhetoric from him before and it never amounted to anything, and she frankly didn’t believe he wanted to expedite this like we did. A lot of our group had previously talked with Mike on the Surrey Strip, before it was shut the Surrey tent city, Mike used to where he walked along 135A Street in front of the police, asked after a person’s welfare, said he was working hard on finding them a home and would let them know soon, and then would walk on while the police behind him displaced the guy he was just talking to. 

No one in our group who had had any dealings with him gave him any benefit of the doubt. I decided to give it a go anyhow. There was a lot of chaotic hollering going on, so I walked up and faced our group in front of Mike. I said I’d never met him and wanted to hear what he had to say. Everyone got quiet. 

My question was, “I understand you saying you are working hard on this issue, but really that to me could mean weeks or even months and we don’t have that kind of time. What can you give us right now? If you don’t have an answer, then walk away and leave us this space for tonight.”

His answer was not surprising. He said he didn’t have the authority to do that. My reply was, “So why are you even here?”

But it was drowned out by the guffaws of the folks who already knew what he would say. Because of the outbreak of laughter, Mike grabbed his lifeline. “You interrupted me while I was talking, so I’m not talking anymore with you. I’m leaving,” he said. Mike told us he was leaving and anyone who left with him now would be unmolested and unbothered by police. 

The eviction of the Hothouse Squat and the beginning of the #Squat2Survive movement

A few people chose to leave then; four in total, I think. The police remaining in the building made sure the threat was clear: anyone who stayed would be arrested. I decided for myself it was time to go, since jail to me is a nightmare. I was asked to stay, but not at all judged or derided for going. My choice was respected by my comrades. As I left, the pigs were saying bullshit like ”be safe.” I did not reply.

When I got outside I felt a bit of an emotional letdown. I was ready to fight but it didn’t happen. But by doing what we did, we have a much better perspective on the next time – and there will be a next time, and soon.

Homes for all! Kill COVID, not us! Wet’suwet’en solidarity! We want to live! Oh yeah, there will be a next time.                                                                                                       

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