B.C. looking at options for women's homeless shelter in Vancouver
As a coalition of groups continues to call for a 24-hour low-barrier homeless shelter for women in the Downtown Eastside, Housing Minister Rich Coleman has directed staff to make identifying options for such a facility a priority, according to a B.C. Housing spokesperson.
“We’ve just started working on identifying some options, so probably in the next few weeks we might be able to bring something forward,” Sam Rainboth told the Straight by phone.
“We’re looking at how this can be achieved within current funding levels as we continue our immediate work to increase safety and security at the First United shelter and other co-ed shelters in the province,” he noted.
The move follows a meeting between the B.C. housing minister and representatives of a coalition of women's groups last week, after the group delivered a petition with 2,500 signatures to Premier Christy Clark’s former byelection campaign office.
The coalition has been advocating for a 24-hour, low-barrier, drop-in space and women’s shelter in the Downtown Eastside since reports of sexual assaults at the First United shelter were made public in February.
Beatrice Starr, who stayed in the First United shelter from June until September, said she saw women being sexually harassed, and heard of men getting access to the women-only area of the facility. She wants to see a new emergency shelter for women like her who have had to spend time waiting outside drop-in facilities until they open.
Starr said she has a 66-year-old friend who has to wait until 11 p.m. to sleep in an overnight drop-in space for women in the Downtown Eastside.
“That’s way too long, especially without feeling well or you’re just tired and you want to lay down,” she told the Straight in a phone interview.
There are existing women's shelters that operate in the Downtown Eastside, such as a 24-hour, 52-bed facility run by the St. James Community Service Society.
Sandra Severs of the First United shelter said the facility's operators have been working with the city and B.C. housing on safety measures at the facility.
“It was designed for another purpose and another time, so it’s got some serious challenges, but B.C. housing has been making funds available for us to do improvements to the building,” she said.
Severs said they are planning on expanding the women-only area at the facility, and have increased the number of women that are on staff 24 hours a day.
Harsha Walia, one of the advocates who met with the housing minister last week, said the coalition is hoping to see a new shelter space opened for women in the neighbourhood within the next month or two.
The group is also calling for 100 new units for women in the Downtown Eastside and for clear provincial standards around women’s safety.
“There has to be clear guidelines around women’s safety, and that doesn’t mean increased surveillance, that means actual systemic, structural changes and actual training and understanding of women’s barriers,” she said.
According to Elaine Allan of ShelterNet B.C., the province will be putting out requests for proposals this spring for minor capital improvements to improve safety and security for women at B.C. shelters, and for staff training in co-ed shelters.
Allan said capital improvements could include measures like the creation of separate washrooms or showers for women.
“It’s all about improving a co-ed shelter and adding any components to it that would bolster the safety,” she said.
Karen O’Shannacery, the executive director of Lookout Society, which operates two homeless shelters in Vancouver, agreed the low-barrier women’s shelter is needed.
She noted the Lookout shelters have a shortage of beds compared to the need among homeless men and women.
“For every two people who try and get in the door, we only have a bed for one of them, and we’re not alone in that,” she said.
O’Shannacery has noticed a gradual increase in the number of women using the shelters, including seniors.
She said that while about 20 to 25 percent of shelter users at Lookout used to be women, that proportion has now increased to between 25 and 30 percent.
“It’s been a steady pressure that we’ve seen,” she said.
“We absolutely need a shelter, and a minimal barrier shelter.”
You can follow Yolande Cole on Twitter at twitter.com/yolandecole.