The brilliant autumn sun came out for the sixth annual Women’s Housing March on Saturday, September 15th—along with hundreds of demonstrators. I joined up with a handful of WAVAW colleagues who were carrying our agency’s banner; we found ourselves surrounded by homemade signs emblazoned with calls to improve the quality and accessibility of housing in the Downtown Eastside and to end displacement due to gentrification. I scribbled down a few rousing messages: “Homes Not Jails,” “DTES Is Not for Sale,” “Rent Control Not Social Control,” “Homes Not Pipelines,” “Not Apathetic Anymore: Together Let’s Give a Damn.” One dog was even in on the action, carrying a miniature banner on its back with the word “LIVES” framed by a heart and the word “PROFIT” enclosed in a strike-out circle.
The many speakers who addressed the crowd offered powerful words of their own—and insightful analysis linking housing issues to other pressing political concerns. Connections were drawn to the expansion of the prison system, resource extraction in the form of mining and pipeline projects, child apprehension, police brutality, violence against women, and historic and ongoing colonialism. Many of the speakers were members of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre’s Power of Women Group, a grassroots collective of low-income and homeless women who have spearheaded the march for the past six years. Other speakers represented the Aboriginal Front Door Society, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, and the Emergency Shelter for Women.
The march included moments of reflection at various stopping points along the route. In front of the former Pantages Theatre site, now slated for condo development, marchers paused to reflect on the consequences of gentrification; at Main and Hastings, we formed a circle around the intersection to remember missing and murdered women; outside the former Vancouver Police Department office at 312 Main Street, speakers criticized the allocation of public funds to policing instead of homes. (Marie from the Power of Women Group poetically demanded “windows not bars.”) The marchers then proceeded to the intersection of Carrall and Water in Gastown, where we considered the destruction of indigenous land as a mechanism of displacement, and to Pigeon Park, where we were treated to a street theatre performance parodying the upscale restaurateurs who drive gentrification in the neighbourhood. The march concluded with a second visit to the Pantages site, where we were all encouraged to contribute to a colourful mural opposing condo development.
Research shows that action on affordable housing is as urgently needed now as it ever has been. According to Metro Vancouver’s Housing Data Book, over 8,500 households in Metro Vancouver were on the waiting list for social housing last year. The 2011 Vancouver Homelessness Count uncovered an increase in homelessness among women, families, and youth, and found that Aboriginal people were at a particularly high risk of ending up on the streets or in the shelter system. In almost all cases, the report concluded, homelessness resulted at least partly from a lack of affordable housing, income security, or support services. These factors are particularly prevalent in the Downtown Eastside. In 2008, a study by the Carnegie Community Action Project revealed that only 0.2% of Downtown Eastside rooms for which data was available were rentable for the social assistance housing allowance of $375 monthly. The remainder of available rooms were being closed to make way for upscale condos and businesses or were being converted into more expensive student-only accommodations or hotels rented by the day or week.
Let’s all do what we can to stop the displacement of low-income communities and ensure that everybody has a place to call home. To quote the placard carried by a WAVAW staff member at the march, “Housing is a right.”
Written by Alana Prochuk, Coordinator at WAVAW for the Mobilization Against Violence – University Partnership (MOV-UP)