by Judy Koch
On Nov. 13 the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (a movement based in this city that fights for the rights of unemployed and poor working people) took direct action to occupy an empty building so that it could be used as a squat or shelter for homeless people.
As in many other cities across North America, Toronto has an ever-increasing number of homeless people. But many buildings stand empty while people are forced to live on the streets for a number of reasons, including inability to pay rent. Toronto is cold in the winter (typically 0 to -10 degrees Celsius), and several people freeze to death each year while the government of the rich does next to nothing.
The OCAP squat action started with a rally at All Saints’ Church, where people were fed and activists gave speeches. After the meal, about 400 marched through downtown streets to the building selected in advance by a few trusted members of OCAP.
The demonstrators ended up on Jarvis Street, south of Bloor, at a former police headquarters—a large four-story building that still had heat, electricity, and water service. The fact that such a building stands empty shows what a criminal system capitalism is. The building would be an ideal place to house up to 150 homeless people who struggle to survive on Toronto’s mean streets.
When we got to the building the door was wide open, and a number of people went inside to join those who were already there. The cops quickly formed a human barrier to prevent more people from entering. Then the cops moved in and arrested 16 people who had refused to leave.
Police pepper-sprayed a number of people at the entrance to the building, injuring some demonstrators rather badly. The crowd lingered a while, reacting with outrage and chants every time someone was removed from the building under arrest. After an hour or so, people marched back to the church, and then dispersed. OCAP is now planning a delegation to City Hall on Feb. 1 to demand that City Council and the NDP-affiliated Mayor David Miller agree to the conversion of the Jarvis Street building to social housing. Should they say no, OCAP will try again to occupy it.
The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (a liberal group promoting housing for the poor) also held an action from Nov. 21 to 23, in which people slept on City Hall Square. On Nov. 22 they marched to the Ontario legislature at Queen’s Park.
*This article first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Socialist Action newspaper.