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Sending out an SOS: Vancouver Rally for a National Housing Program

Downtown Vancouver has been transformed by Olympiamania: everyone dressed gaily in red waving flags up down and sideways, long line-ups everywhere, buzzing excitement in the energy field, and people taking pictures of people who are taking pictures of people taking pictures of everything.


In the heart of this manic experience, a different kind of energy happened at the Vancouver Art Gallery today at noon. The Rally for a National Housing Program occurred and several hundred people showed up. It seemed to be a gathering of mostly activists, homeless people and many journalists with cameras and videos pointing in every direction. The north side of the protest was walled in by a line of several hundred, idly-curious tourists waiting to get into the art gallery. There were several legal observers and Vancouver police surrounding the event. 


The terms of engagement are very clear in Vancouver: we all play our roles out in a way that is respectful of each other and the necessary work of protesting gets done. The Vancouver Police Department has stated that it facilitates 175 protests in the city every year and, with this rally, they acted like typical Vancouver police, courteously hanging out in the background.


The rally began with aboriginal people singing and drumming in the generous way they always share their gifts. Am Johal started this particular community conversation by acknowledging that we were standing on unceded Coast Salish land.


The first speaker stated that the great majority of homeless are First Nations and that it was a shame that the national government won’t do anything about it.


Wendy Pederson, of the CCAP, spoke of the three biggest causes of homelessness: the need for more new social housing, a better welfare income for the poorest in our midst, and a halt to the gentrification of the poorest community in Vancouver, the Downtown Eastside. She pointed out that homelessness and poverty are not caused by addiction and mental illness. She went on to say that 6000 units of new social housing are needed now in “our neighbourhood: the DTES”. It is not good enough to get the crumbs from condo developers. It does not work to rely on charity like getting food from the Food Banks. Instead, what is needed is food security and a good income. Wendy indicated that what is needed is taxing the rich people and corporations in Canada who can afford it. She also stated, “We do not agree with turning Vancouver into a rich resort city. We need housing now!”


(Government research has shown it is cheaper to build housing, at a savings of $18,000 per person, than to have homeless people on the streets. In Vancouver, a single person on welfare currently receives $610. The average monthly rent for a Vancouver studio apartment is $840.)


Wendy read off a long list of the groups supporting this call for a national housing program, saying that facts and experience motivate them. She revealed that they have been getting calls from all across the country on this issue and that everyone involved is doing things relentlessly and joyfully to push and take up space. Wendy closed by saying, “We are keeping our little fight going here and people are doing the same all across the country and the momentum is building.”


Reverend Ric Matthews, of the First United Church, spoke next. “When we make it a priority to overcome the massive obstacles that exist and to catalyze political will, we see great generosity as in the response to Haiti. The challenge is what to do with that here. We all belong to one family and the call is for us to see the family here right in front of our own eyes. We need a comprehensive plan for how we live with one another and share resources. It is not good enough to wait… for a concerted action that is empowered, authorized and accountable to the grassroots and the community. We must remember that just building housing is not enough because it cannot be warehousing. It must be a home. The housing plan must also meet a range of homeless needs because some homeless people are so traumatized that they can’t live in a traditional home. The whole range of needs must be addressed. As well, no plan can be coordinated across silos. Poverty, alienation, displacement, mental illness, and addiction must all be integrated into an understanding of how they all connect with each other.


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