14 arrested after homeless people, activists broke into Vancouver school
VANCOUVER -- Police have arrested 14 people after a group of homeless people and activists broke into a Vancouver school.
The group, a mix of homeless people and activists, said they had occupied a building at the school because homeless people currently cannot physically distance themselves from others, a recommendation most British Columbians are following to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
"I'm a supporter of people who are trying to do what the medical health officer has been asked all British Columbians to do, which is physical distance, which is absolutely impossible when you're homeless or … living in shelter spaces with mats," said Chrissy Brett, an advocate who has supported people living in homeless encampments in Victoria and Vancouver.
Listen Chen, of the Red Braid Alliance, which organized the squat, said the group was hoping to provide a space for people to self-isolate, adding three people knocked on the school’s door seeking refuge.
“So our goal was to be able to open the doors and safely open the doors and welcome as many people as we can safely accommodate, but instead of letting us do that, the VPD moved in,” Chen said.
Video from the scene early Sunday morning shows police officers, some wearing surgical masks and others wearing full gas masks, warning the squatters they will be arrested for breaking and entering.
Police said there were between 30 and 40 people outside the site and 14 inside.
Sgt. Aaron Roed said they were “shocked” the demonstration was happening during a pandemic when people are told to stay apart.
“They’re not only putting their health at risk, but they’re also putting everybody else’s at risk,” he said.
He described the demonstrators as “combative” and “hostile.”
“These people broke into the school and caused damage,” Roed said. “They were hostile with police during the arrest, throwing wooden pallets, as well as large pieces of wood at the officers.”
He said no officers or demonstrators were hurt.
The 14 people were released from custody in the afternoon. Police said they are pursuing charges against the arrestees.
Members of the group who occupied the school said they targeted the building specifically because it had been closed for some time.
Like all schools in B.C., the elementary school was closed because of the pandemic.
School trustee Barb Parrott told CTV News the demonstrators were occupying a building that was not being used by students and staff even before the closure.
The city and province have committed to housing some people in motels, community centres and other sites.
Mayor Kennedy Stewart said it has been his “number one prioirty” that people feel safe, especially those who are experiencing homelessness.
“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 a statement.
He said the city has already undertaken “unprecedented action” by expanding access to sanitation, cleaning single-room occupancies, delivering meals to residents and assisting DTES residents who have lost work during the pandemic.
Vancouver has implemented two emergency response centres, one in Coal Habour and the other in Yaletown, which can house 143 beds altogether.
It is also working with the province to complete 58 modular homes.
The city will also be introducing “life-saving safe supply,” he said.
“In order to provide clarity and peace of mind, I am asking Minister Shane Simpson – as lead of the cross-ministry team responsible for the Downtown Eastside public health response – to outline his plan for the hundreds of hotel spaces and other shelter beds BC Housing has already secured,” Stewart said.
The latest results from 2019’s homeless count showed at least 2,200 people are experiencing homelessness in Vancouver.
Chen is skeptical there will be enough shelter for everyone who needs it.
“It’s just a drop in the bucket when we’re thinking about the total number of people who are living out on the streets or under-housed living in shelters, living in their cars or overcrowded basement suites,” she said.
B.C.'s solicitor general, Mike Farnworth, condemned the demonstration.
"Breaking into a school and occupying a school isn't, in my view, a legitimate form of protest," he told reporters during a press conference about new compliance and enforcement measures under the provincial state of emergency.
This is the second squat in recent weeks; the first took place in Surrey last month.
Chen, who is among the 14 arrested, said she believes people feel even more compelled to continue occupying buildings.
“After these two squats, I think we’re feeling even more empowered to keep doing them. The second lasted twice as long as the first, so you know, we’re growing exponentially,” she said.
Police said they are recommending charges of breaking and entering, adding that more changes could be put forward as their investigation continues.