July 17, 2003

From Street to Squat

From Street to Squat: Halagonians Take on Homelessness
Canadian Dimension. Winnipeg: Jan/Feb 2003.Vol.37, Iss. 1; pg. 8

Copyright Canadian Dimension Jan/Feb 2003

Dom Andrews is 17 years old. He's been living on the streets for the last two years and he's sick of being cold. The young Haligonian says he's also sick of governments who won't listen to him and people who look down upon him because of his situation. Rather than simply complaining, however, Andrews became involved with the Halifax Anti-Poverty Initiative (HAPI) to try and find himself a place to live this winter.

Andrews is one of a growing population of homeless youth in Halifax and around the country. "I counted 27 people sleeping outside the other night," said Liam Smith, a HAPI organizer and himself a poor youth living in a rooming house. "If something isn't done, people will freeze to death this winter," he said.

For the last two weeks Andrews, Smith and other members of HAPI have met daily to plan an occupation, or squat, of an abandoned building, so homeless people could have somewhere to call home.

Close to 100 people turned out for an anti-poverty march and squat, which coincided with protests in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Guelph and several other Canadian cities. Demonstrators chanted, "Everyone in the street until everyone's off the street!" and "We're hungry, we want Ham!" (in reference to Nova Scotia's conservative premier, John Hamm.

After a march around town, street people and their supporters barricaded themselves inside the Old Halifax Infirmary, an abandoned hospital owned by the provincial government. They were evicted by police Sunday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. Six of the 11 squatters were charged with trespassing, a summary offense, warranting a $215 fine. Squatters say their happy they won't receive criminal records, but maintain that fining people already living in poverty represents a cruel irony.

Angela Bishop, of Community Action on Homelessness and one of Halifax's most respected anti-poverty activists, was a participant in the demonstration. She says homelessness has been on the rise for the last ten years and blames the problem on a number of factors, "[There are] all kinds of unique stories for each person, but it could be a combination of addictions, abuse, poverty, loss of family and mental-health issues," she said.

"Arguments with my parents lasted for months," says Andrews, reminiscing about his life before the streets. "After my parents' divorce, I got the boot." He was 15 at the time.

Nathan Johnson, a homeless 23-year-old with a healing black eye and a puffy jacket, wouldn't talk about his personal history but said, "Obviously things have been bad for us if we want to live on the street. I wasn't successful on the inside, so I chose the outside."

Unfortunately more and more youth are feeling "unsuccessful" inside mainstream society and are ending up cold, alone and outside. More than 58 per cent of single people in Canada under age 25 live in poverty and less than one in four vote in most elections. At a national level, promises made in the late eighties to end child poverty by the new millennium were broken. In fact, as many church groups point out with their "A Million Broken Promises" campaign, child and youth poverty is actually increasing.

Poverty in Nova Scotia and the Maritimes as a whole has certain causes and features different from those in central Canada. Rural youth from fishing or other resource-based communities often come to Halifax looking for work.

Part-time, minimum-wage jobs are usually all they can find. Nova Scotia has the lowest minimum wage in the country. Combine that with quickly shrinking vacancy rates and a huge influx of out-of-province students arriving every September and you get what many are calling a crisis. First Nations youth are some of the hardest hit by this trend. Landlords usually won't accept tenants who make less than $15,000 per year, which forces people, especially youth, into overcrowded tenements or substandard rooming houses, and onto the street.

The growing number of squats across Canada signifies several things, the first and most obvious being that homelessness is a growing problem that governments are not dealing with adequately. However, it also signifies a movement on the Left away from large-scale "anti-globalization protests" towards localized actions with direct benefits to marginalized communities. Anti-poverty activists are bringing global-justice savy, vibrance and radicalism away from over-glamourized meetings of the rich and powerful, back to the shores of Halifax and other cities around the country.

The first recent attempt at a public squat in Halifax was squashed, but anti-poverty activists aren't losing hope. It seems the same determination is holding strong at a national level, with groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) at the forefront. Many seem energized with the positive public response to Saturday's demonstrations in Halifax and beyond. As 23-year-old Anna Hunter puts it, "We will not relent until every person in Halifax has a place to stay."

Chris Arsenault is a 19-year-old freelance journalist in Halifax. He's not allowed at "unlawful" demonstrations, so he sent his identical twin.

Photograph (people protesting housing issues)

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