Watch Live: CityNews at Six Vancouver

Vancouver outreach team tackles community safety with peers, not police

What does a wellness check look like without police? In this case, it’s a group of women and femmes -- all female identifying -- walking the Downtown Eastside and other areas to prevent gender-based violence. Crystal Laderas reports.

Since last May, a group of all women and femmes has been patrolling four Vancouver neighbourhoods at night, in an effort to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. And advocates want to see more investment in teams like this, led by peers and not police.

Summer-Rain, manager of the Indigenous Women’s Program at Battered Women’s Support Services, says the outreach team was launched after a public attack on a woman at Main and Hastings. It is a pilot project that received a one-time grant of $50,000.

“I wanted to make sure that the perpetrators of violence knew that there were people who are watching, they were people who cared, and there were people who are going to respond — and that violence was no longer going to be tolerated.” 

With 20 years of experience, including her work advocating for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Summer-Rain says she knows this area like the back of her hand. She’s familiar with the support available as well as the barriers many face when trying to access them.

“In particular the focus is to connect with women girls, non-binary and femmes, but we often get approached from many many members of the community for different kinds of supports, or information or resources.”

RELATED: Vancouver volunteers return to Granville Street amid increase in stranger sexual assaults

In addition to the Downtown Eastside, the outreach team patrols the Granville Strip, Commercial Drive, and Kingsway.

The need for this kind of grassroots initiative became more urgent amid the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the ongoing crises of toxic drug deaths and housing unaffordability, according to Summer-Rain.

“The increased levels of gender-based violence that we were seeing was the motivation to start an outreach program.”

Although the team is approached by many in the community, the focus is on connecting to women and gender-diverse people who have experienced violence.

“It’s not that there aren’t other groups doing outreach. But I think it’s very different and very rare to get an all female-identified outreach team. Many times people don’t necessarily feel comfortable approaching a group of men especially if it has to do with safety domestic violence, or sexualized violence,” she tells CityNews.

RELATED: Vancouver police put ‘spin’ on meat-cleaver incident, DTES women’s groups claim

The team also was set up to deal with the reality that many survivors, particularly on the Downtown Eastside, don’t trust police.

“Many of them aren’t necessarily going to feel comfortable to engage with a police officer, especially one in uniform. Having other options is super important,” she says, adding her organization can help those who do want to report an assault by accompanying them to make a statement and advocating for them throughout the criminal justice process.

“We’ve definitely heard struggles of being believed, or finding police accessible, or easy to engage with.”

In the months that they have been operating, Summer-Rain says they’ve established trust and become recognizable in the neighbourhood they work in.

“In a way, it’s communities safety, it’s community wellness because that was my intention.”

A recent report from the B.C. Human Rights Commissioner analyzed five police departments including Vancouver’s. It says Indigenous, Black, and other racialized people are over-represented in arrests, Indigenous women and girls are more likely to experience police violence, and chronic underfunding has led to an increase in officers responding to mental health and substance use crises.

According to that report, a coroner’s review of deaths that happened either during or shortly after a police encounter found people with mental health issues or who use drugs were disproportionately likely to die in these circumstances.

“Of the 127 deaths reviewed, more than two-thirds involved a person with mental health issues, and 61 per cent of the people who died experienced challenges related to illicit substance use.”

Community-based alternatives to police crucial: advocate 

The Defund604Network says when it comes to responding to mental health crises, a community-based alternative to police “wellness checks” is crucial.

“The results of including the police in those interactions can often be deadly,” says community organizer Tonye Aganaba.

“A wellness check is best initiated by somebody who lives in the neighbourhood, or has a connection to that person. If we are going to provide supports to people make sense for those supports to be facilitated, to be led by people that live within those communities. That’s how trust is built.”

As it stands, Aganaba says, too many outreach teams — like the one at Battered Women’s Support Services — are not funded long-term, and rely on volunteers.

“If we had more money to put into programs like this one, we would be able to adequately pay the people who are organizing these things because this kind of work doesn’t come without a cost. People have been traumatizing themselves every day by providing frontline responses. On top of that, the kinds of things that we’ll be able to provide to the community would be incredible. We’d be able to provide more food, more resources, more socks, more underwear.”

Vancouver city council to fund ‘pilot response program’

Coun. Christine Boyle says there is a role municipal governments can and should play in supporting community-based responses that give people an alternative to contacting the police.

“We’re in a situation currently where our police are responding to a myriad of calls related to poverty, related to homelessness that are not what they were designed to or trained to be responding to. And so we’re better off addressing those needs in a more targeted way,” Boyle says.

“Even the Vancouver Police Department has said they are not the right response. They’re getting called for issues that should be dealt with by others. I think it’s on us as a local government, in partnership with the province and other experts, to be looking at who the right responders are for each call and — and investing in growing those types of services.”

While Boyle says council has committed to fund “pilot a response program that focuses on de-escalation on mental health,” the details have not been finalized.

Top Stories

Top Stories

Most Watched Today