Fourteen people who entered an East Vancouver elementary school Saturday evening in a protest action aimed at securing emergency housing for homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic were arrested.
“This was a dynamic call and prolonged overnight situation for police,” said Vancouver Police Department Sergeant Aaron Roed in a statement Sunday.
Police were called to Strathcona Elementary School around 6 p.m. on Saturday, according to the statement, and found several protesters outside the school, as well as 14 people inside. The group inside had forced entry, as well as barricaded doors and entrances.
Officers devised an arrest plan that accounted for the building’s size, and multiple entrances, among other factors.
“Police were met with hostile, combative suspects inside the school who, at one point, threw wooden pallets and other large pieces of wood at officers,” said Sgt. Roed.
The police arrested 12 people shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday. Two suspects fled on foot, including one who allegedly resisted arrest. They were arrested about 8:30 a.m.
No one was injured “despite the aggression and violent behaviour of the suspects inside the school,” Sgt. Roed said.
Police plan to pursue charges against the arrested individuals.
The group moved into the school as part of a planned action to prompt the province to create more emergency housing for unhoused and underhoused communities during the coronavirus outbreak.
It wants the province to use its power to use property in B.C., such as hotels, to house those currently homeless, in shelters or living in private single-residence occupancy hotel rooms, it said in a statement released ahead of the action Saturday.
It’s not possible for these communities to follow public health directives, such as to wash hands frequently, in order to keep themselves safe, said Fiona York, co-ordinator for the Carnegie Community Action Project and one of the contacts for the planned action.
“So, in order to try to take their health into their own hands, a number of homeless people and supporters went into the school … to occupy it and to have a place, a safe place, to sleep and self-isolate,” she said.
Ms. York was outside the school when the police arrived and the arrests occurred.
She could not comment on any allegations of violent behaviour inside the school as she did not witness that, however she said “the protesters were very peaceful” and inside the building for a number of hours before police went in.
Ms. York called the police response – that she said included about 50 officers, some wearing full riot gear – “totally disproportionate to what was happening.”
The police response “contravened the entire purpose of the operation,” she said, and vulnerable people who wanted a safe place to sleep at night were arrested and put back into an unsafe condition.
Some of the individuals arrested are homeless, she said, while others live in inadequate housing facilities. Some of the arrested have since been released, she said.
She didn’t expect the police response that happened.
“We believe that it’s a charter right for people to have access to shelter … and so people were availing themselves of that charter right,” she said.
As a result of the action, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has asked B.C. Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Shane Simpson “to outline his plan for the hundreds of hotel spaces and other shelter beds BC Housing has already secured,” according to a statement from the mayor’s office. Mr. Simpson is the lead of a cross-ministry team responsible for the Downtown Eastside public health response.
“Vulnerable residents, especially our neighbours in the Downtown Eastside, are rightfully feeling anxious for their safety. Since the beginning of our COVID-19 response, my number one priority has been to make sure our most vulnerable neighbours, especially those that are underhoused, are safe,” the mayor said.
On Friday, the City of Victoria called on the provincial government to take over empty hotels and motels to house the homeless during the pandemic. The city council passed an emergency resolution to that effect.
B.C. Housing has found places in hotels, motels and community centres for more than 900 homeless people who needed to self-isolate across the province.
The provincial Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth was asked about the protesters earlier Sunday during a news conference.
He said he had been made aware of the situation.
“Breaking into schools … and occupying a school isn’t exactly, in my view, a legitimate form of protest,” he said, adding the Vancouver police are dealing with the situation.
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