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Homeless activists arrested after occupying Vancouver elementary school over COVID-19

An activist is taken out of Lord Strathcona Elementary School by Vancouver police on April 19, 2020.
An activist is taken out of Lord Strathcona Elementary School by Vancouver police on April 19, 2020. Global News

Vancouver police say they arrested 14 homeless advocates who occupied a Vancouver elementary school to call for more housing amid the novel coronavirus pandemic early Sunday morning.

The group of roughly 30 activists, many of whom also live in the Downtown Eastside, broke into Lord Strathcona School Saturday night, using a vacant building as “emergency housing” for people who say they have nowhere else to go.

Spokespeople say Vancouver’s homeless are in need of safe places to self-isolate during the COVID-19 crisis, arguing it’s impossible for those people to practice physical distancing and follow provincial directives to stay at home.

READ MORE: ‘Assume it’s here’: Advocates urge action as COVID-19 reported in Downtown Eastside

“We’re just trying to find a place that’s safe to go,” activist Dwayne Martin told Global News. “They said there were places for us to go, [but] there’s not anything being done for the people on the street.”
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Martin and another protester made their way to the roof of the building after large teams of Vancouver police arrived to clear the school.

A Vancouver Fire Department ladder truck had to be brought in to allow police safe access to the roof, where officers talked the activists back down.

Vancouver fire crews bring a ladder truck to Lord Strathcona Elementary School to bring protesters down from the roof on April 19, 2020.
Vancouver fire crews bring a ladder truck to Lord Strathcona Elementary School to bring protesters down from the roof on April 19, 2020. Global News

Vancouver police say they were called to the school around 6 p.m. Saturday. The 14 people arrested had barricaded themselves inside the school after forcing their way in. Other members of the group remained outside and were ordered to disperse.

“Police were met with hostile and combative suspects inside the school who, at one point, threw wooden pallets and other large pieces of wood at officers,” spokesperson Sgt. Aaron Roed said in a statement.

No officers were injured during the overnight operation, Roed said, “despite the aggression and violent behaviour of the suspects.”

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Police found sleeping bags, tools and alcohol inside the school, and has notified the Vancouver School Board about potential damage to the building.

READ MORE: Two Vancouver community centres to be used as homeless shelters in COVID-19 crisis

Charges will be pursued against the activists who were arrested, police said.

Martin and other activists involved in the protest are members of the Red Braid Alliance, a protest collective that was involved in the Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests and blockades across Metro Vancouver earlier this year.

The group has also advocated in defence of homeless encampments from the Anita Place tent city in Maple Ridge to the camp in Oppenheimer Park.

Victoria mayor suggests ‘seizing’ vacated hotel rooms to house B.C. homeless
Victoria mayor suggests ‘seizing’ vacated hotel rooms to house B.C. homeless

With DTES advocates warning of a “catastrophic” human cost if COVID-19 makes its way to the area and other homeless populations, calls are increasing for the opening up of more housing to protect those vulnerable to contracting the disease.

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Victoria city council has called on the province to free up vacant hotel rooms to house those in need, something that Vancouver should also do, Fiona York of the Carnegie Community Action Project told Global News at Lord Strathcona.

“There are about 12,000 hotels in the city of Vancouver, and most of the are vacant,” York said. “So there are thousands of hotel rooms that could be used at this time.”

Global News
Global News. Global News

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy said earlier this month that the province has secured 367 news spaces in hotels and community centres for the homeless, and extended access to 200 winter shelter beds.

Makeshift shelters are now operating in Vancouver’s Roundhouse and Coal Harbour community centres, with Mayor Kennedy Stewart saying they’re already filling up.

City of Vancouver to use community centres to house homeless during COVID-19 crisis
City of Vancouver to use community centres to house homeless during COVID-19 crisis

The city has also contracted a commercial cleaner for high-priority single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, added and added hand cleaning, bathroom and shower facilities to the DTES.

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But activists like Isobel Krupp, another member of the Red Braid Alliance, said the homeless are still not being treated with the compassion they need to get through the public health crisis.

“People who are poor on the streets, people who are Indigenous, who don’t already have a place, are being abandoned or met with state repression,” she said while on the roof of the school building.

READ MORE: Advocate warns of ‘catastrophic’ human cost without urgent coronavirus action for DTES

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart issued a statement following the school occupation, in which he expressed sympathy for homeless populations seeking security during the pandemic.

The mayor said he is asking Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Shane Simpson to provide detailed plans for the “hundreds of hotel spaces and other shelter beds” already secured by BC Housing for use during the crisis.

“It’s clear from this action, and the hundreds of conversations I have had with people who work in the Downtown Eastside, that more information is needed about how underhoused and homeless residents can find the shelter they need to stay safe from COVID-19,” Stewart said in the statement.

The activists had said the school takeover was intended to send a message to Stewart to open up the city’s hotels to the homeless.

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—With files from Simon Little