Ontario: OCAP takes ‘Gatekeeper’ Squat, MP vows conversion to social housing

** check end of report for details of election night action **

More information and Photos: http://www.ocap.ca/ocapnews/gatekeeper.html

OCAP takes ‘Gatekeeper’ Squat, MP vows conversion to social housing

On Saturday, November 8th in the heart of downtown Toronto’s east end, All Saint’s Church was packed with people who came to eat a hot meal and to rally for a demonstration called by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. We had put out a call to take over an abandoned building in a community well aquainted with living in poverty. Over 500 people then took to the streets in a spirited march that made its way through a neighbourhood dense with homeless shelters, low income housing, and parks where people live and die with the reality of how serious the housing crisis in this city really is.

Once the march had crossed the Don Valley Parkway on Gerrard Street, it was suddenly diverted to surround an old building standing in front of the Don Jail. As people rushed the property, the front door was opened and banners fell from the windows. Unprepared, the police flanking the march were unable to prevent people from joining those who had already occupied the building in advance. Chaos ensued as police attempted to stop the flow of people from filling the squat.

Four people were arrested, including a longtime OCAP member whose child was snatched from her shoulders by a female police officer. The two year old boy was held by cops refusing to return him to his father, who stood within arm’s reach. Immediately enraged, the crowd entered into a stand-off with police that ended only after negotiations with the cops returned the child to his dad. All those arrested were charged with various assault and obstuct police charges, and have since been released from police custody. At one point during the occupation of this building, jail officials decided to limit visitation for people wanting to see friends and family at the Jail. This was a callous and unnecessary action and we extend sincere regrets to anyone who was turned away from seeing their loved ones.

Following the initial melee, the police were forced to back away completely from the squat and people and media were able to flood the occupied building. With power, running water, working telephone and fax lines, the building was ours.

558 Gerrard Street East was originally built as part of the Don Jail complex – the home of the jail’s Gatekeeper. After the jail stopped using the buildings in 1974, the Gatekeeper’s building was turned into a halfway house for people coming out of the Don, but due to budget cutbacks, it has been abandoned for a number of years. Throughout, the buildings have been owned by the Ontario Government, but the Tories planned to close the Don Jail and took initial steps by signing an agreement with Bridgepoint Health (at the time known as the Riverdale Hospital) putting the technical ownership of the property in the hands of Bridgepoint, but the Province remains leaseholder and so retains control of the property until the Jail is closed down.

The corner of Broadview and Gerrard, like many in downtown Toronto has been the site of recent homeless deaths. During the first week of February of last year, a native man named Phillip Toulouse froze to death on the porch of the seldom use ‘Governor’s House’, while the Gatekeeper’s building sat empty just meters away. In the winter of 1996, 3 homeless men froze to death in this city. Irwin Anderson, who died just across the street from this building, was one of them.

The police stood with hands tied. Eventually, a supervisor at the Jail conveniently appeared and, as a representative of the owner, told organizers that the building was ‘structurally unsound’ and in the interests of ‘safety’, he did not want people there. We were told that if the premises were not vacated within 15 minutes, he would be forced to call on the police to assist him in clearing the property. As anyone who had the chance to see inside would attest, the condition of the building was not at all in question. The ultimatum had no effect on the commitment of the people inside or their supporters outside to stand their ground. A group of people began to barricade themselves inside the building in anticipation of an eviction by the police.

Timed to take place on the eve of a municpal election in this city, OCAP was calling on the mayoral candidates to respond to the taking of an abandoned building in a city where rent is sky high, buildings sit empty, large amounts of rental housing stand in disrepair, and shelters are filled beyond capacity. But in a bizarre twist, Federal Liberal Dennis Mills, MP for the ward in which the squat was taken, suddenly appeared on the scene late in the afternoon.

After an initial attempt to intervene with the police, citing the fact that ‘there had never been a riot in his riding in all his 16 years as MP’, Mills was allowed to briefly tour the squat, at which point the cops were also using megaphones and banners to deem the demonstration an unlawful assembly and to announce their intended use of force. After it became clear to Mills that the police were set to carry out a full-on eviction of the building, Mills made a pledge. In front of media cameras and onlookers, he signed a statement stating that he would resign from his post in the House of Commons within one month, if he was unsuccessful in getting this building converted into social housing. His pledge was conditional on people leaving the building and its premises, which we forced the police to agree they would be free to do without facing criminal charges. Those occupying the building talked it over and the decision to leave was reached.

We occupied this empty building, one of many in Toronto, to launch a campaign to defend our community and to take what belongs to the people who live in it. Condo owners and business associations cannot be allowed to push their greedy plans on our streets and our lives any longer. The time to step up our fight is now. Home to hundreds of people, the building once known as Street City is scheduled for demolition. It now stands empty and guarded by the same DC Security company that .protected. the Pope Squat at huge expense. At the end of this month, 60 Richmond, a heavily used drop-in program located in the already strapped east end neighbourhood, will shut down unless City officials step in with funding they could certainly afford to provide. We’re building action on this now, and expect mayoral candidates who love to talk about ‘communities’ to satisfy our demands.

On Monday Novermber 10th, as the municipal campaigning ends, OCAP wants to hear from the new mayor. While whoever wins will celebrate victory, the first order of business must be housing. And from the first moment, the new mayor must be held accountable. Words have been uttered about the future of empty buildings in this city. After the action taken this weekend, OCAP wants to know where the new mayor stands. We will go to the victory party to get an answer. Join us.

OCAP office
10 Britain Street
(just south of Queen Street East, west of Sherbourne)
Monday, Novermber 10th

Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
NEW ADDRESS!: 10 Britain St. Toronto, Ontario M5A 1R6
416-925-6939 ocap [at] tao [dot] ca www.ocap.ca

OCAP <ocap [at] tao [dot] ca>