Safety concerns raised following charge of sexual assault at Vancouver homeless shelter

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      A Vancouver organization is raising concerns about the safety of women in a Downtown Eastside homeless shelter, following an alleged sexual assault at the facility last week.

      Police responded to an emergency call at the First United Church shelter on East Hastings Street the morning of Monday, July 25, according to Const. Lindsey Houghton with the Vancouver Police Department.

      "We received a 9-1-1 call from a staff member at the First United Church, advising that he had been told that there was a sexual assault that had taken place," Houghton told the Straight by phone.

      A 48-year-old male suspect was arrested and has been charged with one count of sexual assault.

      Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services, told city council Thursday (July 28) that the conditions for women at the First United shelter are “grave”.

      MacDougall addressed council during a discussion on the city’s 10-year housing and homelessness strategy, which was passed Thursday.

      “Right now, women are at risk in First United shelter,” she claimed. “I urge the city to not flinch in addressing women’s safety in terms of a larger strategy and in the very present concern that we have today.”

      Reverend Ric Matthews of First United Church said staff are working to improve the safety for women at the facility.

      “We’re always concerned about safety for women, and we continue to do what we can to improve the safety for women,” he told the Straight by phone.

      “Those kinds of incidents tend to happen unfortunately very quickly, as this one did,” he added. “At least the staff were able to intervene immediately to prevent any escalation of the event.”

      Matthews said the incident occurred in an open area of the shelter. The facility will now be enforcing a rule requiring women to stay in either the women-only area of the building, or in the couples' area.

      He said staff are constantly trying to prevent such incidents.

      “The challenge is these things can happen even in the couples' area,” he said. “As a result of that, we make sure that there’s staff present in every area, but particularly in the couples' area.”

      A coalition of women’s organizations in the Downtown Eastside spoke out earlier this year about safety concerns for women in the co-ed homeless shelter following a series of reported assaults.

      The organizations have been calling for additional 24-hour emergency shelter spaces for women in the area, and for provincial standards to ensure women’s safety in co-ed shelters.

      MacDougall said she’s encouraged by the fact that the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre is expected to expand its hours of operation beginning in September. The coalition has also met with B.C. housing minister Rich Coleman about the creation of more emergency shelter spaces for women.

      “In the meantime, we have a grave situation in terms of women’s safety right now, as we’re waiting for these other options to come along,” she told city councillors.

      MacDougall said she wants to see the city work with women's organizations to develop a strategy to address violence against women, particularly in the Downtown Eastside.

      "It’s a long time coming, and women have been harmed along the way, and it’s been just a struggle, and it’s still a struggle," MacDougall told the Straight by phone.

      "We're ready to do that work with women, with women's organizations...and it's time," she added.

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      james green

      Jul 29, 2011 at 4:12pm

      As usual, this council and staff are reactive. The means to ensure safety shelters, that merely warehouse people, should have been in place before they were opened. The women's organizations should have been part of an advisory group to be sure the best measures and practices re safety were in place before these shelters were opened. Being proactive is key when it comes to public safety.
      We must take violence against women seriously and one of this city's and country's most serious civil rights struggles.

      12 9Rating: +3

      Scott Clark

      Jul 30, 2011 at 6:40pm

      One very serious issue for the City of Vancouver, Province and the federal government is their collective unwillingness to work with the PEOPLE and PROGRESSIVE NON PROFITS. to develop a comprehensive social, ecological and economic sustainable strategy to create a balanced approach, not just for the core of the DTES, but for the surrounding area.

      We have too many non profits that prevent the people (they call them clients) from getting actively involved in building their community, not just programs but the whole of the community. Their are several accessible non profits there, but the big players are the ones who are connected and sadly get listened to.

      Do we need more services in the core of the down town east side? Can the city produce an overall strategic plan that actually engaged the whole community, including the Elders, families, Aboriginal people, mental health, drug addiction, business and recent immigrants? I suspect not, but plans need to look to the people and community as a whole and develop a BALANCED APPROACH, helping some which likely harms others is hardly responsible.

      Currently the city is looking at housing up to 25 girls and young (ages 16-24) women on Jackson street. Most of these people will have had gone through the Child "Welfare" system, and you can bet that disproportionately Aboriginal people will be over represented in this group.,This proposal is advanced on the "common sense" of several client based service providers.

      I would suggest that good sense would suggest that housing young girls and women there is simply morally wrong. Progressive organizes in the downtown east side know we need to get our vulnerable populations out of there. Put some resources into those women's organizations and build or purchase safe stable housing units or even rentals with other organizations that already do these type of services.out of that area.

      How many more women have to die there before our elected officials do what is morally correct? We cannot give up on these young people and all levels of government need to show leadership.

      Erin Innes

      Jul 31, 2011 at 11:46am

      It makes me sad to notice that First United's response to this incident, according to the article above, is to make rules about what women can do in the shelter -- "The facility will now be enforcing a rule requiring women to stay in either the women-only area of the building, or in the couples' area" -- when it is women who are the victims of this violence. What women do isn't what decides whether someone gets assaulted or not, it's the actions of the assaulter that decide that, and nothing else. More rules about what women can and can't do is not a way to lower assault rates or make women safer. Ever.