GSWS, History, Faculty

Historian Willeen Keough Takes on Housing Justice Struggles

March 11, 2014

In the spring of 2011, SFU Associate Professor Willeen Keough responded to a request from a community organizer for academic support for an anti-gentrification campaign in the Downtown Eastside.  Her attention to housing and homelessness issues deepened after she went on an anti-gentrification tour of the area, met with community leaders, and helped pen and co-ordinate a letter from two-dozen professors against a building height increase in the Chinatown district of the Downtown Eastside.  Soon Keough was acting as spokesperson, heading to city hall for protests and trying to drum up activity on campus in support of community-led housing justice struggles. When an organizer from the Carnegie Community Action Project asked her to join a new coalition that was organizing to press for social housing in the 2013 BC election, she decided to get more involved.

In the months leading up to the BC election, the Social Housing Coalition organized weekly ‘Stand for Social Housing’ protests in around 20 different communities across the province and some bigger marches in downtown Vancouver. The group also crashed election events hosted by both the BC Liberals and the BC NDP. Keough joined a protest at a BC NDP campaign rally held in the Hotel Vancouver ballroom a few weeks before the election. The action won the group a meeting with the NDP policy caucus in a backroom of the hotel ballroom floor. Despite the grassroots community groundswell, none of the major parties picked up the coalition’s demands.  It was an experience Keough found both “exciting and sad.”

Keough remembers that after the election disappointment the group was “sort of at a crossroads as to how to go forward.” The main question was “whether to focus on the local level and work with people on the ground or organize around a broader national campaign.” Though these tactical questions remain, the work of the group continues.  Renamed the Social Housing Alliance (SHA), the group has recently started branching out and drawing support from other parts of BC, like Victoria, Abbotsford, and the Comox Valley.

On campus, Keough is now living in both worlds: professor and activist. She has her “Social Housing Now” banner on a shelf in her Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies (GSWS) office and plans to coordinate with students and professors to hold another “Stand for Social Housing” on campus.  “I do what I can to try to help the issue,” she said, “I am a good leaflet-ter.”

Keough points out there are a lot of good allies on campus who are very supportive of housing justice, including the Women’s Centre, Out on Campus, and Left Alternative. Last year, the Women’s Centre held a pancake breakfast and the funds they raised went to support the SHA.

As a university professor, Keough sees an opportunity to educate for change and influence popular thinking.  In the fall of 2013 she ran a GSWS undergraduate course named “Creation and Re-creation in the Downtown Eastside” that focused on poverty and resistance in the area, bringing in guest speakers from the community. There was a terrific response to the course; some students became passionate about issues of poverty and community resistance after closely studying the Vancouver neighbourhood.  Keough has also recently hired a student through SFU’s work-study program to work with the Social Housing Alliance. The student attends SHA meetings and does research work for the group.

Keough says the SHA is a good place to start for people who are interested in working on Vancouver’s housing issues.  The group is well organized and open-minded, and a place where a broad range of people can join and contribute. She is one of a handful of other professors who are involved; other members include community organizers from around the Lower Mainland, representatives from groups like BC ACORN, numerous Downtown Eastside residents, and an increasing number of groups from across the province with concerns about social housing and homelessness. 

 “We are all busy – but you make decisions about how to spend your time,” she said. “Think, as a historian, about what people will say in 50-100 years about the city of Vancouver… welfare rates are terrible and conditions in SRO’s are a disgrace,” she explains. “How can we in a relatively wealthy province turn our backs on people who do not share the basic dignity of having a decent roof over their heads?” 

When Keough began her involvement in Vancouver’s housing issues she noticed that when professors get involved in community projects it can really help get media and government attention.  As Keough sees it, people facing homelessness or experiencing precarious housing need “moral support”; not “people coming in and saying ‘we will solve the problem’” but instead “allies and supporters.” Keough points out that “it can be too easy for people to lose their sense of community – unless you’re interacting directly it’s easy to lose a sense of what people are struggling with.” But being “complacent,” for Keough, is “not the right thing.”