British Columbia

Video showing sexual act on busy sidewalk highlights vulnerability of women in Downtown Eastside: advocates

WARNING: This story contains graphic content

WARNING: This story contains graphic content

A still from the video shot near Hastings and Main streets in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Submitted)

A disturbing video circulating on social media is underscoring the erosion of women's safety in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, especially during the pandemic, advocates say.

The video — which has sparked investigations by the police and the City of Vancouver — shows a man who appears to be having sex with a woman on a sidewalk near the busy intersection of Main and Hastings streets in broad daylight as people pass by, while a few men nearby chuckle and make off-colour remarks.

It is not clear in the video whether the woman has consented or is even fully conscious — but at no point in the video, which lasts two minutes and 17 seconds, does anybody check.

Mebrat Beyene, executive director of Wish, a group that advocates for sex workers, says she saw the video after a reporter drew her attention to it.

"It's just sort of heartbreaking that so many people were walking by ... Nobody's checking to see if she's OK," Beyene said.

"Comments were all directed at him in a sort of cheering-him-on type of way. So how could so many people just be walking by, even if it was consensual, even from that perspective of trying to ascertain if she's OK or not?"

The video was taken on a bright, sunny day on East Hastings Street, with the Carnegie Community Centre visible in the background. A shirtless man, wrapped from the waist down in what appears to be a sleeping bag, is seen on top of a woman whose mental and physical condition is unclear.

At one point her leg is hoisted over his shoulder. Onlookers chuckle and make comments like, "You can't make this s--t up," and, "It's like Roman times."

It's unclear what happened before and after the video, which was circulated widely before it triggered a police investigation.

'Proper police presence' required: VPD chief

Vancouver Police Department Chief Const. Adam Palmer told CBC he has seen the video. He says it's evidence that police are underfunded.

"If people are doing this in broad daylight on a city street in downtown Vancouver, it shows you that things are not as they should be in our city right now and we do need a proper police presence," Palmer told CBC on Dec. 2.

A recent city staff report recommended the police budget be trimmed by $3.1 million to offset losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Beyene and other women's advocates aren't convinced more police officers would solve the long-standing safety issues on the streets of the Downtown Eastside, which, most infamously, were used as a hunting ground by serial killer Robert Pickton before he was imprisoned for life in 2007.

And they say the video is not the worst example of what happens in the Downtown Eastside and in other parts of the province where women are vulnerable, poor and struggling with substance use. 

Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women's Support Services, says when an "appalling, grim" scene like the one shown in the video becomes so normalized that people fail to react, more help is clearly needed.

MacDougall says there's been a three-fold increase to calls to her organization's helpline since March. Sometimes a woman will call in 15 times before they are psychologically ready or feel safe enough to seek help, she added.

"Gender-based violence has been baked into the making of the [Downtown Eastside] neighbourhood," MacDougall told CBC's The Early Edition on Thursday. 

A sign promoting physical distancing in the Downtown Eastside. Support services have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Advocates seek more support

Beyene says vulnerable women don't want more policing, they want a way off the street. 

She said they're looking for better access to mental health support, emergency housing, safe drug supplies and faster and easier access to drug treatment and rehab spots.

First and foremost, Beyene says, they need the basics, like a place to call for help and a bed to sleep in.

"All of the things that you need to stabilize your life, all the things you need to get your kids back, all the things you need to be housed again," she said. 

Both Beyene and MacDougall say the pandemic has only made these women's lives more precarious, as resources become strained and health orders such as physical distancing requirements reduce the number of available shelter beds.

"We've seen an erosion of safe spaces since COVID-19," MacDougall said.


Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist.