Housing activists demand end to gentrification in Downtown Eastside

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      About 200 people showed up on East Hastings Street for the start of today's citywide housing march to Vancouver City Hall.

      Organized by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, the protest began across the street from Insite, Canada's only legal supervised-injection site.

      Long-time housing activist Jean Swanson told the crowd that they needed to send a message to the city to stop the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside.

      "We'll put the message out to the province: you've got to build social housing, you've got to raise welfare rates," Swanson said. "Hopefully, we'll put the message to the feds that we need a national social-housing program and you need to put in lots of bucks."

      Jean Swanson said that senior levels of government can do more.
      Charlie Smith

      Canada is the only G7 country without a national housing program.

      The next speaker, well-known singer and actor Dalannah Gail Bowen, revealed that she fell into addiction 13 years ago and ended up on the street.

      Bowen described single-room-occupancy hotels as "horrible" places to live.

      "I can tell you the SROs in this community are squalor, like Third World countries," Bowen told the crowd. "No one deserves to live in those conditions. No one. But the city continues to give lip service and do nothing about that situation."

      Singer Dalannah Gail Bowen criticized council for not doing enough.
      Charlie Smith

      Bowen also said that the United Nations has recognized that access to proper shelter, food, and health services are basic human rights.

      "Unfortunately, there are people that don't care and don't want to adhere to their human-rights policies," she said.

      A Downtown Eastside activist who calls himself Homeless Dave accused Mayor Gregor Robertson and unnamed developers of waging a campaign to displace poor residents.

      "In the next five to 10 years, low-income people are going to become a minority in our own community if we allow them to continue," Homeless Dave claimed.

      Homeless Dave found himself in the midst of a large crowd.
      Charlie Smith

      A year ago, Homeless Dave went on a 36-day hunger strike in the same block to protest market housing going up on the site of the former Pantages Theatre.

      "That day, I said gentrification is intensifying," the activist said. "The housing crisis is deepening. The people and the land are under serious threat. Desperate times call for desperate measures."

      He called on the city to convert the former police station at 312 Main Street into social housing with community space for those whom he alleged were "brutalized" by police: aboriginal women and drug users.

      Homeless Dave also urged the crowd to support human-rights activist and citizen journalist Sid Chow Tan's effort to secure a COPE nomination for city council. 

      Tan was videotaping the protest when Homeless Dave declared: "I want you to know that Sid Chow Tan is one of our elders in this community, and he's been fighting in the cause of justice for a long time. He's running for city council in the fall. I expect everybody here to help get him elected there because he's the best thing to happen to city hall since they formed city hall."

      Activist Sid Chow Tan videotaped the event.

      That prompted applause from the crowd. Then Homeless Dave highlighted how the City of Vancouver has recognized that it sits on unceded aboriginal territory.

      "The modern city of Vancouver was founded on the traditional territories of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. These territories were never ceded through treaty or surrender. And that includes Oppenheimer Park."

      More than a week ago, housing activists and homeless residents of the neighbourhood created a tent city in Oppenheimer Park.

      Stella August (left) said the newest tent city is drug- and alcohol-free.
      Charlie Smith

      An aboriginal elder living in the park, Stella August, thanked those who've donated to the cause.

      August pointed out that the camp in Oppenheimer Park is drug- and alcohol-free. 

      "All the people that are on the grounds are so awesome," August said. "They work together. They clean up. The grounds are clean."

      This wall honours deceased Downtown Eastside poet Bud Osborn.
      Charlie Smith
      The sidewalk was jammed across the street from Insite.
      Charlie Smith
      In case anyone was wondering about the crowd...
      Charlie Smith




      Jul 26, 2014 at 4:49pm

      The issue is less the encroaching gentrification of the DTES -- which is inevitable — we cannot "wall off" the DTES — than it is the failure of the federal government, as Jean Swanson suggests above, to have developed a national housing strategy, the first federal government in the past century to abrogate its obligation to Canadians to ensure access to (healthy, affordable) shelter -- in this case, at the very least, livable one-bedroom apartments, most probably located in the DTES in this particular instance, as expressed by those participating in today's rally.

      Dalannah Gail Bowen speaks to the single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels as "horrible" places to live, stating, "I can tell you the SROs in this community are squalor, like third-world countries." As a former outreach worker on the DTES, I can certainly attest to the unlivable squalor that many of our most vulnerable citizens are forced to live in, as the only 'residence' they can find that will charge them the shelter portion of their income assistance cheque. Vision Vancouver has failed these citizens, and all of us, by not enforcing provisions of City bylaws that would force <a href="http://thetyee.ca/News/2008/11/10/Slumlords/" target="_blank">slumlords</a> like the Sahota family (who donate significant monies to the party) to keep their hotels, and their <a href="http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/story.html?id=af8f5a67-f576-4739... target="_blank">rundown</a>, ramshackle apartment buildings livable for the residents living within.

      The feds and the province MUST step up to the plate, and going forward ensure the ready supply of livable, affordable, well-maintained (and, where necessary, supportive) housing for those citizens among us who are most in need.

      Will Rice

      Jul 26, 2014 at 8:32pm

      Evolved urban renewal.

      Urban renewal spurred by market but shaped by social forces - developers devoted to maximized bottom lines constrained by civic government devoted entirely to the social welfare of all citizens - starting with our poorest.

      We must create 'Vertical Villages' meeting on some floors the basic needs disadvantaged citizens struggle and fail to meet - and on others all that aspiring or fulfilled professionals dream of. By recognizing our diversity of capacities and ambitions - recognizing and respecting all our individual standards of personal success - what for each of us constitutes sufficiency.

      In a 'Vertical Village' we'd accept that for many a secure, easily-cleaned, private space to which to retreat and from which to risk the world, is all their heart desires. A place to lick their spiritual wounds or confront an inner demon in a place uncomplicated by the demons of others or the fear of disturbing neighbors. Sometimes assisted - most often subsidized.

      In a 'Vertical Village' we'd recognize the need and benefit of young people living near old people - and of those with time to live near those with the need for their services. We'd recognize a mix of rental, leased, and strata residences is only natural.

      In a 'Vertical Village' the guy in the penthouse would know that his estate high in the sky is there by virtue of the subsidized housing on those lower floors. And those living in the subsidized housing would recognize that the roof over their head is made possible by those luxury condos.

      A 'Vertical Village' would respect the needs of developers (and desires of buyers) and allow, arranged vertically, sufficient units to provide profit. Meantime it will make sure that every time several hundred market rental or strata units are created there is no displacement - only an improvement in living conditions. Added height that more than compensates for loss due to sub-market units - and that allows for a building footprint permitting the block a park-like setting.

      I've done the math and this is practicable. All it takes is that developers be made to know that this will be a fact of life - and the rest of us to go outside of the prison of our own preconceptions.

      Vertical Villages mean profit and healthy respectful communities.

      Elliott Taylor

      Jul 26, 2014 at 9:26pm

      Today it was my privilege to walk with the residents of the Downtown Eastside and I got to listen to their ideas, their hopes for their community. They love the DTES, it is their home, and they want to make it better. I can only applaud that. I understand pride of community. I live in West End and I am just as passionate about my neighborhood.

      I am fortunate that I have never seen an SRO apartment, I have only seen photos. Between those, and the accounts of people who live in them, I am ashamed of our city. In a nation as rich as Canada no one ought to be forced to choose between bedbugs, rust, filth, leaky pipes, torn flooring, and holes in walls. or life on the street. And no one should have to live on the street either.

      I hope that the leadership shown today is able to ignite the wider community to the need for real substantive change. Every level of government bears some shame here, and it must stop.


      Jul 26, 2014 at 11:10pm

      In the pictures, I don't see anyone demanding an end to gentrification as much as protesting slum housing, and good on them.

      Housing is a human right, and I believe that the jurisprudence is going to trend that way.

      It's going to gentrify, but the existing population has to rise with the tide, not drown in it.

      Save Vancouver

      Jul 27, 2014 at 9:12am

      @RUK - there is no need to accept gentrification. If the middle class wasn't being forced out of their traditional neighbourhoods by offshore money, there would be no need for them to gentrify areas like the DTES. What is needed is stricter standards for SRO's and as others have posted, some leadership from the Federal gov't on housing

      I didn't know the Sahotas contributed to Vision Vancouver, shocking if true. It's time we had a civic gov't that puts citizens needs before developers wants!


      Jul 27, 2014 at 6:19pm


      Of course there is a need to accept gentrification. Gentrification means that a depressed slum area becomes suitable for the gentry - for landowners. Like everybody, landowners like clean streets, safe schools, abundant retail, but unlike everybody, they can afford the taxes for these amenities and so they are taken more seriously than people who merely demand them.

      Look at it this way, the reverse situation is called white flight, when the gentry flee an area, and it is a bad thing - it makes a slum.

      The DTES has had its slum moment. It's now water view property five minutes from downtown - if you think that it is going to be VANDUstan forever, you're delusional!

      Jon Q. Publik

      Jul 27, 2014 at 7:02pm

      Healthcare not housing please. Housing is a short term crutch that every party is trying to lean on because they know that right now they will not move forward at a provincial level. Vancouver doesn't need saving, but the DTES does need razing.

      Alan Layton

      Jul 28, 2014 at 7:47am

      The changes coming to all areas of the oldest parts of downtown Vancouver (Gastown, DTES, Chinatown) are not really being generated by the middle class but by the creation of a business center for software development and graphics. Many of the condos are for young (mainly male) high-tech graduates who want to live close to where they work. Many of them rent and this is part of an environmental plan to decrease the use of cars for commuting.

      If you are going to war, then you really need to know your enemy.

      As for low income housing, the greatest challenge isn't so much creating it, but keeping it up. Low income residents require an enormous amount of care and that means a great deal of money, per person, and forever. Often this funding is what is cut first during economic downturns. That's how all of those massive housing projects in large N. American cities deteriorated into slums. Housing the poor is very expensive and a major commitment is needed. I just don't see that happening any time soon.

      Jon Q. Publik

      Jul 28, 2014 at 11:55am

      Alan makes a good point. Vancouver is nowhere near San Francisco in terms of gentrification. Just wait if Gregor has his way and watch the Tupsters (Tech/Yuppie/Hipster) grow and expand. Just walk around Hootsuite and you will see what I mean. The Bay Area is in actual crisis, you can live hours away from San Francisco and be paying $1600 in rent for a stuido apartment that's next to a BART station.