| Canada, Toronto, Media, Michele Landsberg on the squat
TORONTO STAR, SAT. SEPT.28 ’02 PG.L1
On the first blessedly cool evening of the fall, as the welcome rain came sluicing down, I drew the curtains and thought of the Pope Squat, where the rain would be bouncing off the newly repaired roof and watering the Swiss chard, tomatoes, lettuce and marigolds now thriving in the front yard.
Toronto loves to puff itself as “world-class”, but nothing could be more inept, blinkered and junior than the way our city and provincial governments have handled the issue of homeless protesters. Just look at the clumsiness of the Tent City evictions.
As for the squatters who occupied an empty building during the Pope’s visit in July, the provincial government has been numb and dumb, in the deep silence of total uncaring. Some of our city counsellors, on the other hand, have been splutteringly apoplectic at the thought of anarchists occupying a decrepit, unoccupied, abandoned rooming house.
Chris Korwin-Kuczynski once again frothed on about the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty —the crowd that organized the protest march and occupation of 1510 King St. West. But at least he tried to get the building used for social housing. Michael Walker and Brian Ashton oppposed.
The provincial government is even more culpable. Apparently, it owns the derelict building. By default, because the house no longer has a registered owner, the property reverts to the Crown. The owners absconded in 1994, taxes and hydro bills unpaid, and left the empty building to fester with leaking roof, rotting floorboards and walls full of black mould. The homeless squatters have peacefully occupied the premises since July, unbothered by local police. They ripped up rotten floors, tore out stinking carpets, emptied the mounds of garbage, planted a garden, fixed the roof and began the interior renovations.
“We have about 15 people living here,” explained Lisa Kocsis, 20, as she showed me “the model suite” — a bedroom and alcove, newly dry-walled.
The squat is a perfect example of functioning anarchy. Whoever wants to work, shows up and works. Whoever lives there and does some work, has first dibs on a finished room. Local fast food restaurants have been stoic about allowing unfettered use of their washrooms, and neighbours turn up with donations of water, food and equipment. It’s messy, and the house is still half-wrecked, and you wouldn’t want to live there if daily hygiene is an important part of your lifestyle, but 15 people have a roof over their heads and a home address.
Which is more than the city ever offered them, with its 60,000 people on the housing waiting list. Alas, despite Councillor Olivia Chow’s constant urgings, the city never re-invested in social housing the $15 million plus it has saved in the last two years due to lower interest rates on its mortgages.
In recent weeks, Chow and city officials worked with OCAP members to prepare a brief to the province, making it clear that the province now owns the building. Their brief now sits on the desk of Attorney-General Dave Young, who has not bothered to respond.
Social conservatives of the Evesian peruasion should take a leaf from New York, where Mayor Bloomberg, a Republican business mogul after their own hearts, has just arranged to sell 11 abandoned Lower East Side buildings for $1 each to the squatters who have turned them into habitable homes.
The unions and social justice groups who are supporting the squatters might also pounce on the shining example of New York’s Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. It’s a smart non-profit that, for 30 years, has helped vulnerable slum tenants and squatters get co-op ownership of their buildings. It secures loans for them, trains them in construction skills, provides low-cost legal help and insurance, and even teaches residents how to get rid of drug dealers.
Academics who have studied the results have good news: marginal people who find stable housing at low rents (average $500 monthly) in these buildings gradually get their feet on the ground. The slow, hard collective work of reclamation also rebuilds self-confidence. Many of the tenants, even the rebellious punks who built a skateboard park in the cellar, are now earning steady wages and raising families.
Tenant control, in other words, works far better than shelters. Stands to reason, in this capitalist culture, that independence, autonomy and sweat equity (otherwise known as pulling onself up by the bootstraps) give a person an ego boost.
OCAP has done some of the city’s and province’s homework for them by tracking down dozens of abandoned buildings. Now if only our elected officials would snap out of their apathy, we might actually start housing the homeless before winter sets in. What a world-class thought.