British Columbia

Women's groups outraged over sexual assault comments

Women's groups on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside are condemning a minister who runs a homeless shelter, because they say he is blaming female victims for a rash of sexual assaults.

Women's groups on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside are condemning a minister who runs a homeless shelter, because they say he is blaming female victims for a rash of sexual assaults.

Police have confirmed there have been six sexual assaults reported at the First United Church shelter on East Hastings Street since October.

First United Church Minister Ric Mathews was quoted in The Province newspaper on Monday saying, "Some women put themselves at risk because of the way they dress or undress or move around the building drawing attention to themselves."

Kate Gibson with the Women's Information Safe House says that's unacceptable.

"You can't accuse women of being the reason for sexual assault.  You can't blame the victim," said Gibson.  

"I think that kind of attitude is taking us back 40 years in that of why women are sexually assaulted.  Women are sexually assaulted because people are perpetrating violence against them."

In a statement issued by several women's groups, Elaine Durocher of the Power of Women Group said Matthews was not taking the sexual assaults seriously.

"A comment like Matthew’s stigmatizes women and sends an unacceptable message that they are to blame for assaults committed against them. This is part of a pattern of increasing attacks on women and women’s bodies across the country," said Durocher.

Not laying blame

But Matthews maintains his comments have been misconstrued and he wasn't laying blame on the women.

Matthews says he was simply trying to convey the complexity and volatility of the situation inside the shelter that houses some of the city's most troubled homeless people.

"In that troubled, intense, irrational space it's problematic that we have one or two women for example who for their own mental illness, needs...I mean they're high on addiction...occasionally those two person might walk through the building naked," said Matthews.

"Then there are other women who would, from time to time, undress in public," he said.

"I was simply trying to make the point that adds to the intensity, and the risks associated with those kinds of behaviours," he said.

Matthews says any sexual assaults are unacceptable.

The church-run facility is a no-barrier shelter, meaning nobody is turned away, regardless of drug addictions, mental illness or behavioural issues. There is only one 12-bed female-only room in the shelter and the rest of 250-bed facility is mixed accommodation.

The shelter is one of three in the area that the province is funding until construction is completed on several upcoming supportive housing projects in the area.

Several women's groups on the Downtown Eastside have been calling for the establishment of more female-only shelter facilities in order to protect women from further sexual assaults.