A Downtown Eastside resident who calls himself Homeless Dave delivered his demands to Vancouver City Hall today (April 4), as he marked the 14th day of a hunger strike aimed at bringing attention to calls for social housing in the low-income neighbourhood.
Surrounded by a group of supporters including Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Homeless Dave was pushed in a wheelchair from the Downtown Eastside to 12th Avenue and Cambie Street this morning to bring a letter for the Vancouver mayor.
“I’m here to deliver three demands to Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision government,” he told reporters before sliding the letter under the door of the mayor’s office.
The formerly homeless activist wants to see the city turn the Sequel 138 condo site and the former police station, both located near the intersection of Main and Hastings streets, into social housing, and is calling for the city to declare the Downtown Eastside a “social justice zone”.
“There’s tremendous stress in our community, and that’s the reason why I’m here today, is because it really is an act of desperation, and no level of government has listened to us, starting with the local government,” he asserted. “We’ve seen this through the local area planning process with the city, and they have not been listening to us and they have been approving condos while this process has been going on.”
The hunger striker described the city's plans to use the former police station as a digital incubation centre as "very insulting". The City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Economic Commission launched a request for expressions of interest in January for a party to deliver incubation services for early-stage technology and social innovation companies at the site.
“Imagine that—they’re subsidizing corporations there, but they won’t build what is due to us, our social housing,” he said.
Single mother Lorelei Williams spoke in support of the demonstrator’s demands, noting she struggled to find permanent housing for eight years.
“A lot of the women in the Downtown Eastside deal with violence, so there’s a vicious cycle,” she said. “If they want to leave their violent relationships, they have nowhere to go, and some women actually end up going with men just to have a home. Things like that happen because there’s no social housing. It’s a huge crisis, and we need to deal with it.”
Wendy Pedersen, a long-time activist in the Downtown Eastside, said many community members have been through “the whole gamut of speaking to the city about this”.
“For the last 10 years, we’ve gone to meetings, we’ve published research, we’ve participated in their planning processes, we’ve done everything,” she said. “And we’ve had tent cities, we’ve had demonstrations calling for more housing and trying to stop gentrification and displacement from the Downtown Eastside. But still, gentrification is happening at light speed.”
City manager Penny Ballem said the mayor is currently away, and spoke to the group on behalf of city staff working on the local area plan for the Downtown Eastside.
“I think the issues that Dave has raised, and that many of you have talked about over the last few weeks in this campaign, are obviously a major focus of discussion, and the solutions are not easy, and it involves all levels of government,” she said. “The city is working very hard to leverage all the opportunities that we can to improve housing for low-income people, to renovate and rehabilitate housing, and there’s a lot of work still to be done.”
Green councillor Adriane Carr said today’s demonstration at city hall points to “how frustrated” the advocates are. She argued that now is a “perfect time” in the lead-up to the provincial election in May to ask the political parties what their plans are for social housing.
“We have land in some cases, we have an ability to certainly influence the form of development and promote social housing, but without senior government help, we just simply can’t build it ourselves,” she said following the demonstration at city hall. “That’s critical right now, and I think that’s the short-term very important process that we should engage ourselves in, all of us as councillors.”
After being weighed, Homeless Dave told reporters he has lost 14 pounds during his two-week hunger strike. The demonstrator has Type 2 diabetes, and has been drinking 325 ml of Happy Planet juice, a company cofounded by Mayor Robertson, each day.
“I’m prepared to go as long as this takes—that means 40, 50, 60 days,” he said.
The demonstrator is holding two daily pickets during his hunger strike, at 138 East Hastings Street from noon to 1 p.m., and outside the former Vancouver police station at 312 Main Street from 1 to 2 p.m. His supporters say they plan to stage further actions in the community.