Homeless people and supporters from Nanaimo’s tent city have moved into the recently closed Rutherford Elementary School to begin what they’re calling the ‘Schoolhouse Squat.’ NICHOLAS PESCOD/The News Bulletin

Discontent City campers break into empty elementary for ‘Schoolhouse Squat’

NANAIMO – Homeless camp residents and supporters announce they’ve ‘claimed’ Rutherford School

Discontent City residents and supporters have seized an empty school.

At least a dozen members of Alliance Against Displacement, supporters and occupants of Discontent City moved into the recently closed Rutherford Elementary School on Friday afternoon and hung banners calling for more housing as part of a campaign they’re calling ‘Schoolhouse Squat.’

“We have claimed this building as a safe spot for homeless people,” said Amber McGrath, Discontent City supporter and organizer, during a press conference outside the school Friday evening. “For five months, Discontent City has been home for the homeless [to] camp. We were unhoused, but we made a home. The government and courts are trying to make us homeless again and we will not go along with it.”

Nanaimo RCMP were on scene at Rutherford elementary and are monitoring the situation.

“We’re assessing the damage to the school, we’re having some dialogue with the individuals to determine what their intentions are, and we’ll be in consultation with the school district because they are the holders of the land,” said Const. Gary O’Brien, Nanaimo RCMP spokesman.

The civil disobedience begins the same day that the provincial government announced plans to open temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness at two sites in Nanaimo at Terminal Avenue and Labieux Road.

Speaking to reporters, McGrath called the province’s announcement awesome, but said the people living at Discontent City were never consulted about the kind of housing options that could be available to them. “They weren’t [consulted] if they wanted that kind of housing. They were sort of given supportive housing; 24-hour supportive housing doesn’t leave you any tenants’ rights,” she said.

McGrath said they chose the Rutherford school because it is “just sitting here” empty. She said they plan to stay in at the school for as long as they can, despite the fact that affordable supportive housing is slated to be constructed in November.

“We have over 300 people who are sitting down in the middle of dust bowl in the rainy season, winter is coming, with no roof and there is an empty building sitting right here,” she said.

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Dave Diewert, a member of Alliance Against Displacement, told reporters the announcement by the province is not good enough because it’s only 170 units and there are 300 people currently living at Discontent City. He said the temporary housing is nothing more than construction trailers divided into small rooms with no kitchen and 24-hour surveillance.

“These are essentially shelters, not homes,” he said, later adding that people want to have dignity and not be controlled. Both Diewert and McGrath expressed concerns about the lack of services nearby near Labieux Road. However, when asked why they decided to occupy Rutherford school when there are no supportive services nearby they did not answer, only saying that the community should be supportive.

“It is exactly this element of self-determination and I think there could be support from the community to make sure they have the resources that they need to survive here,” Diewert said.

Sophie Wendling, another Discontent City supporter, joined the press conference via speakerphone from inside Rutherford school. She said those inside intend to stay as long as they can.

“We want to open up this space so that other people can come and be where it’s warm and dry in an unused space,” she said.

Schoolhouse Squat offers “a home for the hundreds of homeless people displaced by a brutal and unjust displacement order won by the City of Nanaimo from the Supreme Court of British Columbia” according to the press release, which also states that Alliance Against Displacement are encouraging others to join the squat or start up others in order to appeal to the government for help.

“We’re basically encouraging everybody across the province and across the country, there’s empty schools everywhere,” McGrath told reporters. “Take those schools. Homeless people shouldn’t be out in the cold.”

Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay said he became aware of the situation shortly after 5:30 p.m. He said it will be difficult for the organizers to maintain support in the community following their latest stunt. “It’s one thing to take over a piece of raw unused property but when you’re commandeering a building like this, I think the community would agree that this has gone way over the line,” he said.

Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools could not be reached for comment.

RELATED: Supreme Court grants injunction against Nanaimo’s Discontent City

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