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Indigenous women further endangered by East Hastings forced displacement: women’s groups

Women’s groups in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are sounding the alarm on the city’s forced displacement of people living outside, saying the city’s plan to remove shelters and tents from a stretch of East Hastings Street will further endanger Indigenous women.

Attijup Christine Wilson, the director of advocacy for Indigenous women at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC), says the removal of tents and structures in the area will decrease the safety of Indigenous women who are “absolute homeless and have been displaced and have nowhere to go [because of] lack of shelter, lack of attainable and affordable housing.”

In a news conference last week, Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim said the city is hearing stories of violence, theft, and vandalism, “violence against women and more specifically violence against Indigenous women.”

“We have said time and time again that large entrenched encampments, like the one that we have on East Hastings, is not a viable model going forward. And the longer the East Hastings encampment continues the greater odds that more people will lose their lives and even more people will lose their homes. And that’s why I and city staff with my team, made the decision to request support from the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) to bring the encampment to a close,” Sim said Wednesday.

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City Manager Paul Mochrie added that while the city “recognizes that shelters are not a substitute for permanent housing, they are warmer and clearly safer than the situations in this encampment.”

But Wilson, a Gitxsan woman, says Sim’s inferral that Indigenous women will be safer once the tents and shelters have been removed from East Hastings is “disingenuous.”

“It isn’t actually getting to the root issue of homelessness for Indigenous women.”

“In fact, it increases their vulnerability, being absolute homeless and having nowhere to go at all, due to lack of shelters and lack of affordable and attainable housing and lack of mental health and lack of addiction treatment and detox as well as lack of transition housing,” Wilson said.

According to Wilson, 40 per cent of the population experiencing homelessness are women, with 34 per cent of those being “absolute homeless” Indigenous women.

Wilson says tent cities are not the answer, but part of Premier David Eby’s Memorandum of Understanding with the City of Vancouver included the province’s agreement to build affordable, safe, attainable housing. The province recently announced that 330 affordable suites will soon become available, with the first 90 coming online in June.

“Currently, there are over 22,000 unoccupied houses in Vancouver. And I think that the unoccupied housing could be something that the city can look at, in regards to temporary housing and buildings that are unoccupied can be used as shelters or temporary housing for all women, and including Indigenous women,” she said.

In an earlier statement last week, the DEWC and the Battered Women’s Support Society (BWSS) said in a joint statement said they were appalled at the city’s and VPD’s operation to clear the DTES “with no supports available for women and no secure housing to move women into, and with no regard for impacts this siege will have to women’s safety.”

Angela Marie MacDougall, BWSS executive director, said that the destabilization of forced displacement will increase violence for women in the neighbourhood.

“Women, and particularly Indigenous women and women of colour, are already at a higher risk for violence than their male counterparts, and being unhoused is a particular risk. Safe and secure housing for women in the Downtown Eastside and throughout Vancouver is desperately needed. Poverty is not a crime, and neither is being unhoused.”

Both groups are pushing for those displaced to be housed.

“Moving people along doesn’t make anyone safe, it puts them more at risk, especially women,” the community groups’ statement said.

Wilson says the city and province need to act upon the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirit Calls to Action, along with the report Red Woman Rising, “so that Indigenous women no longer face the violence of being absolute homeless.”

In a statement to CityNews, the City of Vancouver re-iterated that the encampment on East Hastings Street needed to be dismantled due to safety concerns, citing a survey by Atira Women’s Centre “in which all respondents reported feeling unsafe and having experienced violence, including sexual assault.”

“The heightened violence and fire risk in the encampment was dangerous for everyone in the neighbourhood,” the statement said in part.

It continued, “The City regularly consults with Indigenous organizations on various issues related to the DTES including encampments, homelessness and women’s safety. However, due to the high risk to public safety and sensitive nature of the operation last week, we were unable to notify every partner.”

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