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[Written with the memories of Laurie P. in the minds and hearts of many of us at the Olympic Tent Village– Laurie was an active member of the DTES Power of Women Group , a long time member of the Downtown Eastside Women Centre and a deeply loved community member in the DTES. Despite being terminally ill, Laurie sat around the fire many evenings at Tent Village. Laurie passed away on Feb 24, 2010]
This started out as an attempt to update you all about the important developments that have transpired over the past 48-72 hours at the Tent Village. However it is impossible for one person or even a group of people to provide you with a complete picture of what has taken place, what will take place, or how we have arrived here together. So instead, this is a (hasty) letter of sorts; an attempt to document and share with you the birthing of the Village over the past two weeks, with those critical updates buried somewhere in there.
On Feb 15, 2010 the Olympic Tent Village was set up at 58 West Hastings, a site that became an obvious choice for a Tent City when planning for it began in Jan 2010. The site is on an Olympic corridor and thus has high visibility. It is also in the core of the Downtown Eastside and therefore easier for DTES residents to access. Importantly, the empty lot is owned by notorious condo developer Concord Pacific, currently being leased by VANOC as a parking lot for the Olympics.
Concord Pacific is Canada’s largest developer and in 2008 Concord’s proposed “Greenwich” project for the lot was a seven storey condominium building. In 2008, a sustained DTES community campaign - which included community forums, rallies, delegations to City Hall, and actions at Concord Pacific’s Sales Centre - forced the stalling of the Project. The slogan that developed around Concord Pacific was “Stop Concord Pacific’s ‘Discovery’ of the Downtown Eastside”, drawing parallels between the processes of colonization and urban gentrification, both of which disproportionately affect and displace Indigenous people. (Click here for 2008 photos by Blackbird) The lot has since then largely sat empty over the past two years.
The year 2008 onwards saw ongoing organizing against the broader ‘condo tsunami’ as over 1500 market housing – primarily condos – were being built and proposed in and around the DTES. Meanwhile over 1600 units of low-income housing have been lost in the DTES due to closures, rent increases fuelled by Olympic-related real estate speculation, and slow conversions including for tourist use. According to the City’s own reports, market housing is currently being built at a rate of 3 units to every 1 unit of social housing in the DTES. A demand developed in a series of DTES community meetings: “We demand no displacement, no evictions, and a moratorium on condo development.”
On Feb 15 2010, the 58 West Hastings site was secured during a rally No More Empty Talk, No More Empty Lots: Homes Now! attended by hundreds of DTES residents and supporters. Since the Olympic bid, homelessness has nearly tripled in the Greater Vancouver Regional District, while real estate and condominium development in the Downtown Eastside is outpacing social housing. Meanwhile, a heightened police presence has further criminalized those living in extreme material poverty in the poorest postal code in Canada. The rally and tent city were originally envisioned and organized by the Downtown Eastside Power of Women Group, Streams of Justice, and Vancouver Action in close collaboration with other DTES-resident groups and with the endorsement of over 100 organizations. The Tent Village focused on three initial demands: 1. Real action to end homelessness now; 2. End condo development and displacement in the Downtown Eastside; and 3. End discriminatory ticketing, police harassment, and all forms of criminalization of poverty.
Based on a call for supporters to defend the site for the first 24-72 hours, the first night brought out hundreds, including DTES residents and homeless people. Over 80 tents – supplied with tarps, sleeping bags and blankets - propped up within a few hours. Dozens of banners and flags adorned the chainlink fences, a sacred fire with sweetgrass and sage was lit by Indigenous Elders, Food Not Bombs prepared our first of dozens of meals under the kitchen tent, Solidarity Notes Labour Choir shared uplifting songs of resistance, the Carnival Band drummed alongside Indigenous warriors, a medic tent emerged stocked with supplies including herbal teas and natural remedies, legal observers lined the perimeter, and a dedicated team of security (including many of out-of-town allies here for the anti-Olympics convergence) started preparing to protect the site overnight from law enforcement and other unwelcome trespassers. Later in the evening, the Stopwar.ca anti-militarization march ended at Tent Village, bringing solidarity from hundreds of anti-war activists. Under pouring rain and heavy police surveillance, the inaugural evening also featured a “Reading Resistance” event with Brad Cran, Vancouver’s 2009-2011 Poet Laureate who refused an invitation to participate in the Cultural Olympiad, along with poets Mercedes Eng, Maxine Gadd, Cynthia Oka, and Dorothy Trujillo Lusk.
A press conference, highlighting the powerful voices of DTES residents and homeless residents of Tent Village, took place the following morning of Feb 16, 2010. Videos are available here and here. For mainstream media articles, click here.
Since then, the Village has truly taken on its name and developed as a critical space of genuine community resistance. Every day and every evening two fires gather dozens of peoples to share stories, food, poetry, song, and conversation. In addition to residents of Tent Village, hundreds of DTES residents drop in for food, for a sanctuary from the street and into a space that is welcoming and free of unnecessary institutional rules and regulations. DTES residents and supporters alike seem to seamlessly and organically take shifts preparing and serving food, doing dishes, cleaning up the site, doing security, and lending an ear and mediating conflict as needed. (Listen to an interview with the incredible Dave Diewert.)
The Tent Village is deeply decentralized, no one person is really in an overall leadership position or understands the totality of the functioning of the Village. While this may seem disorganized and a weakness to some, this structure has really allowed the Village to flourish as individuals step-in and take responsibility for areas and undertake tasks they feel they are most capable for. Decisions that many of us, as original organizers, had made were quickly debated in a series of meetings involving the participation of all those involved in Tent Village in any way. As an example, our media policy was quickly altered from the Village being open to media to no cameras being allowed on-site as concerns about privacy arose within the first 24 hours. A sophisticated media protocol has developed since and is posted on the front gate. Plans to remain on-site were also extended to at least the end of the Olympic Games. Community agreements, under the leadership of DTES Elders and DTES Power to Women group, were drafted. These include: respect for all Tent City residents, no discrimination, a drug and alcohol free site though those who are under the influence are welcomed without judgement, no violence against other residents, and prioritizing decision-making by DTES residents, those who are homeless, and DTES Elders.
Autonomous committees have sprung up including organizing skill shares, a building crew, gardening committee, recycling and Green committee, and a committee to work on a newsletter entitled Tent Village Voice. Just in the past two weeks, two issues of Tent Village Voice have been released to bring forward the stories of Village residents; dozens of structures have been constructed to protect residents from the rain and provide a more comfortable living environment; a garden has sprouted at the entrance; and a series of workshops including guerrilla art, improv theatre, bike building, and knitting have taken place. Several groups and individuals have taken the initiative to organize evening concerts.
I do not mean to romanticize the Tent Village; indeed there has been tension and conflict and disagreement from everything about the role of security to where the fires should be located to what to do when there is a violation of the Community Agreements. However these are natural and expected. What is unique is the process of dialogue, decision-making, and resolution in light of having no hard-and-fast rules, being flexible and sensitive to people’s lived experiences, and collectively relying on the good faith and judgement of each other. All this has facilitated a sense of ownership, entitlement, and commitment to the space and those within it as something beyond yet another service or temporary shelter in the neighbourhood. It is an affirmation of community, offering the possibility of what it means to live together in a self-determined space beyond the immediate bounds of the government and the police. It has been deemed ‘paradise’ and a place where ‘real freedom lives’ by DTES residents of the Village. This is critical, because although our demands as an anti-poverty and housing rights movements tends to focus on having basic needs meet via the welfare-state, we must simultaneously strive to create alternatives to this system and understand that real justice will not from those who are responsible for marginalizing us in the first place.
Much more than mere symbolism, the Olympic Tent Village is a serious blow to the rhetoric of housing, human rights, and compassion that all levels of government have been touting, especially during the Olympics. Despite being an ‘illegal’ squat, it forces a challenge to the state and our society: on notions of land and property ownership; on legality versus morality; on broken promises and having false expectations of our governments; on acceptable and unacceptable forms of protest; on why a police-free zone draws hundreds of DTES residents; and how even a glimmer of freedom and autonomy might turn people to choose living rather than surviving and to fight for justice rather than beg for charity. All these appear to have placed the authorities in the position of not shutting the site down forcibly and instead maintaining a silence on the Olympic Tent Village; indeed what greater embarrassment for Vancouver and Canada during the Olympic Games than - under the gaze of the international media - removing a group of homeless people from an empty lot in the one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country.
Despite government silence and inaction on the three Tent Village demands, over the past week a more specific and concrete demand was added, calling on the municipal and provincial government as well as BC Housing to immediately provide housing to occupants of the Tent Village who are homeless, under-housed, and precariously housed. At a community meeting, it was decided that the Tent Village would continue at least until the government took action to house the homeless residents of the Village. Over the week, several of us did intake and signed up approximately 50 homeless residents of Tent Village who had decided it was time to put the pressure on for BC Housing to provide them with safe and affordable homes.
A campaign was launched by Vancouver Action calling on supporters to write in to the Mayor, City Councillors as well as the BC Ministry of Housing and Social Development and BC Housing to demand immediate action. Hundreds of letters were sent in, forcing a response from municipal and provincial officials. Predictably, the letters received from several City Councillors as well as BC Housing attempted to shift the blame on Tent Village organizers, stating that we had denied access to BC Housing and City staff on several occasions. It is unclear what we might have done had that actually been the case, but the reality was that no official housing workers ever came to the site. The one exception was that the Vancouver Police Department sent their “Homeless Liason”, escorted by two uniformed police officers, who were promptly asked to leave the site, as per everyone’s desire to ensure that the site was police-free.
In addition, two press conferences, which included supporters from Carnegie Community Action Project, Impact on Communities Coalition, and Pivot Legal Society, drew mainstream media attention, video available here. A Tent-In at BC Housing was staged by Tent Village supporters including representatives from Citywide Housing Coalition and Vancouver Status of Women to increase the pressure to immediately house the 50 individuals.
As a direct result of the grassroots campaign and the popular support for the Tent Village amongst incredibly diverse communities and social justice groups, over 40 homeless Tent Village residents have now been housed in BC Housing units across the Lower Mainland, while others have chosen to return home to their communities. This group includes everyone at the Tent Village who signed up for B.C Housing and who we could track down over the week. Originally offered mere shelter spaces, the group of homeless people worked with Tent City advocates to ensure that all were appropriately housed based on their specific needs, preferences and circumstances, not warehoused in shelters or un-livable single room occupancies.
In the coming days, it is likely that the mainstream media will parrot the government line about how much the government cares about the homeless and how BC Housing has graciously provided people with homes. In light of this, it is imperative to reiterate that these homes - especially apartments not SRO’s - had to be forced out of BC Housing. It also makes obvious how the government absolutely has the resources – including housing units, though certainly not enough for all the homeless in Vancouver – available, it is just not their priority to house the homeless. In this case, government officials were motivated not by good will or good intentions, but the glaring and stark visible reminder of homelessness that the very existence of Olympic Tent Village represents amidst a $7 billion party for the rich.
While not a complete measure of justice as thousands are still homeless on the streets of Vancouver, as hundreds of thousands are forcibly displaced off their land or out of jobs into poverty and substandard housing, and many more try to survive through the death sentence of capitalism and colonization, this is still most definitely an important and concrete victory not only for those who now have these homes, but for all of us. It reinforces the importance of political struggle and pro-active direct action, rather than passivity and reliance on the government, in the face on an unflinching bureaucratic system that perpetuates poverty, misery, corruption, and systemic oppression on a daily basis. (Watch this great video with DTES residents about building the movement)
It is unclear what the coming days bring as there are growing concerns amongst many about capacity, sustainability, and resources; along with a desire to not have the site continue from a place of vulnerability rather than strength as many of the homeless residents leave for their new homes and the number of supporters who are present slowly dwindles. Regardless of if, how, and when it ends, it is clear that the Olympic Tent Village has accomplished so much more than it set out to and has a fostered a very meaningful and uplifting sense of community along with a strong sense of political mobilization.
To the scores of DTES and homeless residents who have become family with the potent combination of constant bickering and unconditional acceptance and compassion; to the Elders keeping the flames of the sacred fires; to the DTES Power of Women Group who command not only mine but so many of ours’ deepest respect; to all members of Streams of Justice, Vancouver Action, DTES Elders Council, Walk 4 Justice, No One Is Illegal, AW@L, 2010 Welcoming Committee, no2010, and the many others who have held down at the Tent Village for more hours than not; to the tireless Food Not Bombs and everyone in the Kitchen Tent who are our foundation; to the phenomenal crew that redeems the word ‘security’ by serving the people and keeping the police out; to all anti-Olympic resisters; to all Indigenous defenders on the front-lines of land defense and anti-gentrification struggles; to all the allies in the DTES Justice for all Network; to the hundreds of endorsing groups and all others who have supported with generous donations; to all independent media especially Vancouver Media Co-op; to all Legal Observer teams; to all the healing medics; to the hundreds of unnamed who have built, sustained, fed, fuelled the Olympic Tent Village and whose time and loving efforts have not gone unnoticed: you bridge fire and sky. You have an undeniable place in my heart and much solidarity and strength in the long struggle ahead.
For more information about the Olympic Tent Village, visit http://olympictentvillage.wordpress.com/