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(en) Canada, Toronto, Media, Michele Landsberg on the squat

From <nicolasphebus@yahoo.com>
Date Sun, 29 Sep 2002 10:22:24 -0400 (EDT)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

> Received: from martin.laurentides.net 



On the first blessedly cool evening of  the fall, as the welcome rain came
sluicing down, I drew the curtains and thought of the Pope Squat, where the
rain would be bouncing off the newly repaired roof and watering the Swiss
chard, tomatoes, lettuce and marigolds now thriving in the front yard.

Toronto loves to puff itself as "world-class", but nothing could be more
inept, blinkered  and junior than the way our city and provincial
governments have handled the issue of homeless protesters. Just look at the
clumsiness of the Tent City evictions.

As for the squatters who occupied an empty building during the Pope's visit
in July, the provincial government has been numb and dumb, in the deep
silence of total uncaring. Some of our city counsellors, on the other hand,
have been splutteringly apoplectic at the thought of  anarchists occupying a
decrepit, unoccupied, abandoned rooming house.

Chris Korwin-Kuczynski once again frothed on about the Ontario Coalition
Against Poverty ---the crowd that organized the protest march and occupation
of 1510 King St. West. But at least he tried to get the building used for
social housing. Michael Walker and Brian Ashton oppposed.

The provincial government is even more culpable. Apparently, it owns the
derelict building. By default, because the house no longer has a registered
owner, the property reverts to the Crown. The owners absconded in 1994,
taxes and hydro bills unpaid, and left the empty building to fester with
leaking roof, rotting floorboards and walls full of black mould.

The homeless squatters have peacefully occupied the premises since July,
unbothered by local police. They ripped up rotten floors, tore out stinking
carpets, emptied the mounds of garbage, planted a garden, fixed the roof and
began the interior renovations.

"We have about 15 people living here," explained Lisa Kocsis, 20, as she
showed me "the model suite" --- a bedroom and alcove,  newly dry-walled.

The squat is a perfect example of functioning anarchy. Whoever wants to
work, shows up and works. Whoever lives there and does some work, has first
dibs on a finished room. Local fast food restaurants have been stoic about
allowing unfettered use of their washrooms, and neighbours turn up with
donations of water, food and equipment.  It's messy, and the house is still
half-wrecked, and you wouldn't want to live there if  daily hygiene is an
important part of your lifestyle, but 15 people have a roof over their heads
and a home address.

Which is more than the city ever offered them, with its 60,000 people on the
housing waiting list. Alas, despite Councillor Olivia Chow's constant
urgings, the city never re-invested in social housing the $15 million plus
it has saved in the last two years due to lower interest rates on its

In recent weeks, Chow  and city officials worked with OCAP members to
prepare a brief to the province, making it clear that the province now owns
the building.  Their brief now sits on the desk of Attorney-General Dave
Young, who has not bothered to respond.

Social conservatives of the Evesian peruasion should  take a leaf from New
York, where Mayor Bloomberg, a Republican business mogul after their own
hearts, has just arranged to sell 11 abandoned Lower East Side buildings for
$1 each to the squatters who have turned them into habitable homes.

The unions and social justice groups who are supporting the squatters might
also pounce on the shining example of New York's Urban Homesteading
Assistance Board. It's a smart non-profit that, for 30 years, has helped
vulnerable slum tenants and squatters get co-op ownership of their
buildings. It secures loans for them, trains them in construction skills,
provides low-cost legal help and insurance, and even teaches residents how
to get rid of drug dealers.

Academics who have studied the results have good news: marginal people who
find stable housing at low rents (average $500 monthly) in these buildings
gradually get their feet on the ground. The slow, hard collective work of
reclamation also rebuilds self-confidence. Many of the tenants, even the
rebellious punks who built a skateboard park in the cellar,  are now earning
steady wages and raising families.

Tenant control, in other words, works far better than shelters. Stands to
reason, in this capitalist culture, that independence, autonomy and sweat
equity (otherwise known as pulling onself up by the bootstraps) give a
person an ego boost.

OCAP has done some of the city's and province's homework for them by
tracking down dozens of abandoned buildings. Now if only our elected
officials would snap out of their apathy,  we might actually start housing
the homeless before winter sets in. What a world-class thought.

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