British Columbia

Improving Downtown Eastside Women's Centre in line with city's reconciliation commitments: report

The centre has a wait list of up to 30 women each night but will soon be able to offer 24-7 services for women in need.

'It's nice to give them a space where they get no judgement, they get to be themselves,' says shelter manager

The 2017 homeless count in Metro Vancouver recorded a sharp increase: up 30 per cent from the count in 2014. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

The Downtown Eastside Women's Centre (DEWC) will soon undergo renovations to increase the number of beds from 50 to 57 and open the shelter space 24/7 as demand for its services continues to rise.

The City of Vancouver approved a $250,000 capital grant on Tuesday saying the project helps meets recommendations from the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry and the city's commitments to reconciliation.

The city says 67 women from the Downtown Eastside went missing or were murdered from 1978 to 2002.

'It's bad'

"Women living in the DTES, including Aboriginal women, face significant and extreme challenges as survivors of injustice and exploitation," read its report.

"The need to assist the DEWC to move towards a year round 24/7 shelter model is urgent given the overrepresentation of Aboriginal women who utilize the shelter as a safe place."

Shelter manager Vanessa Smith has been working at DEWC for five years and said the demand for services has increased sharply because of high rental costs and a loss of women-specific services.

"It's bad," she told Gloria Macarenko, guest host of CBC's On the Coast. "There's a couple of buildings in the Downtown Eastside that are exclusively for women and families but there's never enough, especially at the price range."

High rent, unsafe homes

Some women who frequent the shelter live in single room occupancy buildings but choose to sleep at DEWC, where they feel safer, according to Smith.

"One woman in particular stayed with us because she's been told to heat her place with her oven," Smith said, adding others feel unsafe because the locks at their SROs have not been changed since previous tenants left.  

Others come simply to be in a dry, safe, female-only space.

"We probably have a couple hundred women a night coming in just to use our washrooms, have some tea, just a quiet, safe place for them to hang out: women only," said Smith.

Around 65 per cent of the shelter's clients are homeless while 80 per cent live with an addiction or mental illness, according to numbers provided by the city.

An estimated three quarters of women who use the shelter are Indigenous.

"Nobody asked to be down there. It's nobody's dream to be down there," said Smith.

"It's just nice to give them a space where they get no judgement, they get to be themselves. They can cry, they can get angry, they can emote."

Wait list: 30 women per night

Current capacity includes 50 beds that sometimes turnover after a few hours, allowing the shelter to sleep about 70 women each night. The renovation will add seven additional beds.

Still, wait lists can sometimes be up to 30 women long and housing support workers struggle with helping clients find permanent solutions.

Renovations for DEWC are expected to begin in November.

Smith said the city has been helpful in facilitating a temporary relocation of DEWC from the current city-owned space.

She hopes the construction will be wrapped up within five or six months.

Services, offered around the clock, will include healthy meals, housing outreach, first aid, HIV case management, counselling and referral services.

With files from CBC Radio One's On the Coast