On Sunday, This Magazine writer Jennifer O’Connor participated in a march for social housing leading up to the takeover of an abandoned house in Toronto. Here is her account of the action.
(PHOTO: KRISZTINA KUN)
“How would you like to live with roaches, no heat, no water and no money to cover basic necessities?” asked one of the signs clothespinned to a fence in Toronto’s Cawthra Park.
Hundreds of people came here on Sunday for a rally before marching through downtown Toronto and arriving at an abandoned house on Howard Street (near Bloor and Sherbourne streets) that had been taken over by the Women Against Poverty Collective.
The collective, a group of women and trans people, organized the takeover to provide “safe and affordable community spaces where women can live.” A tent city was also set up in the park across the street from the house. WAPC’s eight demands include federal right-to-housing legislation, universal childcare and a 40 per cent increase to social assistance rates. (The complete list of demands is available here.)
The facts connecting violence and women’s poverty are shameful. According to the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, one in seven women in this country is living in poverty. Plus, recent research from Statistics Canada states that women report just over one-third of physical assaults to police. The CRIAW has also found that the early death rate for homeless women is 10 times that of women with housing. “Any plan to reduce or eliminate violence against women,” reads one of the institute’s fact sheets, “must deal with the issue of creating safe, affordable, accessible housing.”
At the housing takeover, I joined in the chants: “Housing by women, for women, now!”; “Our housing, our right, we want a place to sleep tonight!”; “Poor women under attack, what do we do? Stand up! Fight back!” I grooved along when “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves” was played. I tried to figure out the answers to the speculative questions: Did the police just take the horses in the trailer up the street or come back down? The police had blocked the house as soon as we’d arrived, and I waited to see what was going to happen.
Just after 7 p.m., in the middle of a rainstorm, the police began moving those of us in front of the house back onto the sidewalk across the street and the horses were brought in. “Many, many of the women that were there yesterday were injured,” WAPC member Anna Willats said on Monday. We shouted and cheered for the four women who were arrested when they came out. (Another woman was arrested outside of the house; they were all released.)
Those of us in tent city were going to move out of the park, as we’d been invited to another location, but I found myself scrambling to get my tent and my belongings out of the way of the horses as we were chased through the park and out to Sherbourne Street while most of the demonstrators were being forced straight down Howard to Sherbourne. We walked back to Cawthra Park, with the police following us on bicycles, before disbanding.
On Monday, the WAPC held a lunch/press conference at the 519 Church Street Community Centre. The idea was to keep the focus on the demands, and the collective has promised to “demonstrate for change until it happens.”