With as many as 200,000 Catholic pilgrims in Toronto last week for World Youth Day, who knows how many people, at any given moment, faced with a difficult situation, were asking themselves: What would Jesus do? (or “WWJD?” for short)
But seeking guidance about what’s right is not the purview of pilgrims alone.
On July 25, as Pope John Paul II was greeting pilgrims at Toronto’s Exhibition Place, 1,100 “guardian angels of the poor” marched through Parkdale – a downtown community not far away, notorious for its poverty – and transformed an abandoned building into social housing. Or so they hope.
The activists declared the empty building “The Pope Squat.” Squatters sported t-shirts that read: WWJD? SQUAT!
He was, after all, born in a squat of sorts Himself.
The Pope Squat was originally planned by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). In their initial press release, they highlighted the gravity of the housing situation in Toronto and their reasons for opening the squat: “We’ve been waiting, agitating, protesting, lobbying and asking for social housing to be built for years. We have seen thousand of our friends and family evicted. We have seen our rent shoot through our decaying roofs. We have seen hundreds of people die on our streets. We can wait no longer!”
As the Pope leaves town today, 60,000 people in the city continue to wait for social housing. Hundreds of thousands across the province of Ontario are forced to live in substandard housing and face the daily potential of eviction and homelessness. But will taking over an abandoned and crumbling building help?
“You either give it or you guard it,” says Pope Squat spokesperson Sarah Vance. “Is the city really going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars day and night to protect this building when they could just give it up for social housing?” she asks.
Renovations and clean up have already begun.
Catholic groups and pilgrims have taken time out of their busy Worth Youth Day schedules to support the initiative. “Building for profit leads to the construction of high rent luxury apartments and the neglect of houses for low income people,” says Gregory Baum, a Catholic theologian. “Since governments blackmailed by the rich are increasingly unwilling to interfere in the market economy, it is up to citizens who love justice to set up and support organizations that are able to create self-managed, social housing for the homeless,” he says.
Support for the squat has been growing steadily since the inaugural night last Thursday. Supporters camped outside, danced to music, scavenged – hunter-gatherer style – for furniture and talked by candlelight while they anxiously waited for the police raid that never came.
The Toronto Emergency Task Force (ETF) did arrive on the squatters’ doorstep on Friday because of an apparent gun on the premises. After some negotiation, it was decided they should be allowed into the building where they looked around and then left. Many squat supporters believe the act was just a way for police to gather intelligence and intimidate.
The surrounding community, curious at first, seem to have accepted the squatters’ presence. Some have even provided food and water.
The history of ownership of the building is unclear even to area residents. According to organizers, the building was one of Parkdale’s many run-down rooming houses until the occupants were all evicted a few years ago. “By the time everyone was thrown out, there were twenty-five work orders against the building that the city government had never enforced. The corporation that owned this building dissolved in 1994 and hasn’t paid tax on the property for several years. According to the Business Corporation Act, since the corporation no longer exists, the provincial government owns this building.”
OCAP was quick to reinforce that the Pope Squat is not a protest against the Catholic Church. “Nor is the Pope Squat a police matter, but an issue that should be negotiated with politicians,” says Steve Watson of the Canadian Auto Workers. “The police have no role here, the building is effectively owned by the city, so no criminal action is taking place. What OCAP has done is brilliant, with no private landlord screaming for eviction, the ball is really now in [Toronto Mayor] Mel Lastman’s court,” he says.
A delegation from the Pope Squat plans to meet with the mayor today, whether or not they have an appointment.