VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — The Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre has had to limit how many women can access its drop-in centre amid the pandemic, and the organization says its efforts to expand outdoors have been “thwarted” by the city while restaurant patios pop up at record-speed.
In the days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the non-profit had to shutter its drop-in and scale services back to the bare essentials — offering food, and access to indoor washrooms. Over the summer, access to victim services, advocacy, housing support, and clothing donations has gradually resumed. But the need to maintain physical distance means the organization’s overall capacity has been curbed.
And that means fewer women have a safe place to go, according to board member Andrea Glickman.
“People that are typically used to being able to gather outside of their housing in the Downtown Eastside, or people who need somewhere to go to if they might be homeless — they don’t have as many places that are accessible to them,” she says.
“What we have been trying to do is to expand patio opportunities in the same way that the restaurant industry, for example, has been able to do so successfully, so that people can have a safe place to gather. We’re quite concerned with safe spaces for women to gather that are women-only.”
Glickman says the combined crises of COVID-19, a poisoned drug supply, homelessness, and violence against women have created serious threats to clients’ safety.
“We’re hearing of situations where women, particularly young women, just really don’t have anywhere to go and it’s becoming a bit of a crisis,” she says.
“We know that a woman died recently outside of the street market and she was there for quite a while before anyone noticed her. That’s one of the instances where had she had a safe place to go, she might not have died, or she might have been noticed, or it just might’ve been different.”
The lack of access to safe spaces and critical services during COVID-19 disproportionately impacts DTES residents,…
Glickman says while the city has been supportive in a general sense, the action taken has been underwhelming.
“There was just no support in place to fast-track it,” she says, adding staff and volunteers can’t afford to dedicate a whole lot of time to navigate the municipal bureaucracy.
“DEWC has been continually thwarted by red tape, unlike restaurants, which have had the capacity to facilitate opening patio spaces, as well as tacit support from the City through fast-tracked permitting processes,” reads a statement from the organization.
While the program to fast track patios for restaurants has resulted in hundreds being set up in neighbourhoods across the city, Glickman says they have been trying for months to get one outside of the centre on Columbia Street.
“The patio space that’s been identified right now is actually so narrow that a wheelchair or scooter can’t really go through it and a lot of the women that use the centre need to have accessible places. If you picture some of the other outdoor spaces that have been created outside of the Downtown Eastside they’re much larger than that, and for restaurants, it happened a lot faster,” she says.
In August, the acting executive director outlined some of the ways the pandemic has affected the women who rely on the centre’s drop-in and shelter.
“Gender-based violence has increased, people have lost supports of all kinds, the drugs are the worst they have ever been and the overdoses have increased to a height never seen before. Women that access the drop-in centre have died, and the shelter has managed to have women survive overdose at the rate of four per week for the last two months,” reads a post on the organization’s website from Kate Gibson.
Now, the threat of a second wave of the coronavirus is looming and colder weather is on the way.
“We are concerned, in addition to outdoor patio spaces they’re going to need to have heat and that’s going to be something that needs to be a bit of a priority. Again, what we’re looking for is to highlight that the Downtown Eastside is a significant number of people in a very dense area, many of them in need of a lot of specific supports,” Glickman says.
“We also want to encourage an environment where people are interacting in a safe way. We know during COVID that there are safe protocols that can be followed so that people can, for example, if they live in an SRO, they can get out. We want people to be able to get out of that, and we want people to be able to enjoy the food that we provide at the women’s centre. We just need to have a safe space for the women to go.”
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In a statement, a spokesperson for the City Of Vancouver says it is working to address the issues raised by the centre.
“The city recognizes that there is an urgent need for additional space for non-profit organizations in the DTES. The city is working actively with the DTES Women’s Centre, other non-profits, provincial partners, and private organizations to identify solutions that will support residents in the DTES and Downtown South.”
With files from Nikitha Martins