Safe Housing, Safe Shelters and Safe Services for Women

Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories – In response to numerous rapes and assaults that have continuously occurred in the co-ed shelters in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), frontline women-serving organizations recently formed a coalition to demand the City of Vancouver and BC Housing:

1.      Open a 24-hour low-barrier women-only drop-in space and shelter in the Downtown Eastside.

2.      Build housing for homeless women and children with at least 100 new units to be made available immediately.

3.      Implement clear provincial standards for women’s safety in co-ed shelters immediately in all existing and new shelters.

The coalition includes the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, WISH Drop-In Centre, Power of Women Group, and Battered Women’s Support Services.

There were six reported sexual assaults at First United Church, one of Vancouver’s largest shelters. Reverend Rick Matthews of First United Church’s response was that “Some women put themselves at risk because of the way they dress or undress or move around the building, they draw attention to themselves.” In addition, Margaret McNeil of BC Housing said to Alice Kendall of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre “Come on, shit happens, look at Rwanda, look at Libya.” With this being the response, and after months of trying to bring this issue forward and being ignored, the coalition decided it was time to take further action.

On Tuesday, March 22, the coalition of women’s groups sent out a press release and, with support from the community, marched to the BC housing office to voice their demands and initiate dialogue with BC Housing. They were met by over 30 police officers barricading the entrance to the building.

At 3:00pm, the crowd walked up a parkade driveway to witness Dale McMann in a discussion with first nations elders and frontline workers, all of them surrounded by police officers and the media. They meeting was being (Note; Dale McMann is a familiar face to me personally after the struggle at Little Mountain Social Housing, where the province sold off public land to private developers, displacing 224 families to make way for a massive condo development. Dale McMann was the main aggressor in the destruction of the Little Mountain community, managing the Relocation (“displacement”) office onsite).

When asked what BC Housing is doing for women’s safety in the Downtown Eastside, McMann responded “We are aware of the issue and we are continuing to talk about it.”

“We have all known of the need for a 24hr woman’s shelter for years and have been telling you this,” responded members of the crowd in anger. “You need to act immediately, these rapes are preventable!” a woman shouted from behind the crowd. “Why are frontline organizations not being included in the development process?” asked another woman. McMann eventually rushed out of the parkade back to his office, leaving many questions unanswered.

At 4:30pm, BC Housing announced that they would be opening up a 24hr women-only drop-in center in the DTES and that Atira would be managing the contract. The first thing that came to my mind was, where was Atira? Frontline workers and Executive Directors from at least six different Women’s organizations were present that day, and in fact Atira was one of the only ones that wasn’t there.

Was this a victory?

The response from the coalition of woman’s organizations was one of disappointment.

Here’s a lengthy quote from Harsha Walia, a housing activist and Project Coordinator at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre:

Firstly, it is abundantly clear that BC Housing’s response has escalated – from ignoring us and Margaret McNeil’s inappropriate comments, to now locking out the community of women from the Downtown Eastside and calling the police on us. That is their official response to sexual violence and women’s safety? That is shameful and appalling especially from a public institution. Secondly, this announcement of the overnight drop-in SisterSpace is unacceptable to us. It is an attempt to buy out a housing provider who wasn’t even onside with all of us in the first place. More importantly, this new overnight drop-in does not meet a single one of our demands: it is not a 24 hour space, it does not provide housing or shelter beds, and is a space that would be filled by no more than a handful of women. BC Housing cannot co-opt or silence this group of women who are articulating a clear set of three core demands. Women’s safety is a critical and sacred issue to us and women in the Downtown Eastside are particularly vulnerable given systemic racism, poverty, and health issues. We will continue to take action ‘till our demands are met.

“There has been a complete utter lack of transparency in this process between BC Housing and Atira Resource Society and the Women’s coalition,” stated Angela MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women Support Services. “We need to ask ourselves, what made Atira decide to open up a drop-in centre today?”

These are questions we are all asking ourselves. What did that process look like at 369 Terminal Street that day, March 22? Had there been prior discussion around the opening of this 24 hour shelter? If the funding was there, why wasn’t it opened earlier? Or did Shane Ramsey, the CEO of BC Housing, speed-dial his wife, Janice Abbott, the CEO of Atira, asking her to get him out of this mess? Wife you ask? Yes wife. DTES service provision politics always seems to include a large amount of nepotism for some bizarre reason.

The general tone of the community is that BC Housing should not have been let off the hook. People feel that more and more often we are seeing service providers co-opting the movement, and silencing the demands of grassroots organizations by collaborating with the government and settling for crumbs.

We’ve seen this with 58 West Hastings and the Portland Hotel Society’s plan to build social housing at 58 West Hastings (the site of last years tent village), all with zero consultation and communication with the very community that spent years calling for housing at that site. Is there any guarantee that plans for 58 won’t look like Woodward’s, where hundreds of low-income hotel rooms closed down in the wake of gentrification?

Do you ever wonder how non-profit organizations and programs are created? I wonder, do bureaucrats sit around and think “Today is a good day to be charitable!” “We have gaps in services that need to be filled and it’s our duty to do it!.”

No, although I’m sure there’s the odd Robin Hood bureaucrat ripping through red tape somewhere to create some type of change from within. The reality of it is that the only way resources are ever fronted is if there is enough of a demand for it, and that demand usually comes from the community.

If these community organizations didn’t continue to put pressure on the government, these issues would float under the radar mental illness would still be something we tried to hide and ignore in our community, people struggling with addictions would have no support, people would not have access to adequate healthcare, and women will continue to be raped in our shelters.

“Social Work conflicts with the practice of professionalism,” someone said to me today. This made me think. As social workers we are constantly faced with the responsibility of best practice and to truly provide the best care for our clients from the ground. This means that we have to change the overall conditions of people’s lives and challenge the systems that are oppressing them. At times that includes our funders, our bosses, developers, politicians and many others in positions of power. To be truly client-centered we often have to go against the grain. Having said that, it’s not all that often that you see service providers on the front-lines of rallies and speaking in city hall. Today the rally was filled with frontline workers and community organizers who had witnessed one too many injustices, one too many preventable rapes, and one too many politicians and bureaucrats pass the buck on the issue of women’s safety. It was a sign of a growing radical grassroots movement within the community and field of social services, and a heart-warming one at that.

The struggle continues, until the community’s demands are met!