Women Take a Stand: Shelter, Housing, Human Rights!
And Interview with Bernie Williams
By Shannon Bundock
On November 19, 2006, a group of over 40 women took action in protest to the severe lack of shelters and social housing for women on the Downtown Eastside (DTES), Vancouver. These women occupied the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC), which has been in operation since 1978, keeping it open and accessible to women 24 hours a day.
The center is regularly open daily until 5pm. The staff and volunteers at the center have been faced with a challenging situation – they see many of the women who use the center sleeping in the streets at night, with nowhere to go. The center doesn’t have the funding to stay open 24 hours, despite the desperate need for a 24 hour space for women in the area.
The center’s administrator, Cynthia Low, the staff, and the board of directors support the occupation, because they've had no success getting money from the city. She told CBC on Monday Nov 20th, “We've been trying for the past six months to talk to senior management to talk to different funding managers about the situation. And of course everyone says, 'Yeah, we know it's bad, but there's just no money to be had.’” It would cost about $450,000 a year to operate the shelter 24 hours a day.
According to Downtown Eastside-based legal group Pivot Legal Society, 514 low-income housing units in Vancouver's downtown core were lost between June 2003 to June 2005. In addition, 295 low-income housing units were lost since June 2005. Projected gains between 2006-2009 are dismal, with 172 new low-income housing units created by 2007 and 125 new low-income single housing units available in 2009. In their 2006 report “Cracks in the Foundation”, the Pivot Legal Society found that 3177 people in Vancouver would likely be homeless and on the street by 2010.
The crisis situation facing women on the Downtown Eastside is nothing new. Women are unable to access shelter space as there are no women’s only shelters and therefore no space that is secure and safe for women seeking refuge from the streets. Finding safety in the Downtown Eastside is a serious matter for women. On the Downtown Eastside, women are routinely beaten and raped. The Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) estimates that more than 500 women have gone missing in the last 20 years.
The Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre has been a haven for many of these women. The Centre reports 4,000 visits from women every month. The Centre has served not only as a warm, dry, safe space, but also a centre of education, advocacy and political action. Support groups for battered women, survivors of rape and violence are run on a regular basis. As well, the centre runs a Learning Group and Popular Education Group, providing literacy classes, First Aid courses and training in public speaking. In addition, the centre has ongoing arts, health and social advocacy workshops, as well as weekly outdoor recreation initiatives. Through all of this the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre has become an invaluable resource and support for thousands of women.
The problem that has forced the DEWC to hold open its doors 24 hours a day is one of funding cuts and attacks on social services for women. In 2001 in BC, all funding to women’s centres was slashed to zero by the Provincial Government. Over the past five years, efforts have been made by women’s groups and their supporters demanding that funding be restored. Mass demonstrations, lobbying, picket lines, letter writing and other efforts have been ignored. In October 2006, another hammer fell when the Federal Government announced a severe cut of 38.5% of the Status of Women budget, removing “women’s equality” from the goals of the agency, pulling all funding for advocacy, lobbyists, or general research around women’s issues, and finally chopping the head off of the Court Challenges Program. These attacks have forced women to take action, to respond with demands for the services we need, the services we deserve. The Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre has set an example for women across BC and Canada to take action in defense of women’s rights.
On Monday November 20, 24 hours after the occupation of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre began, Fire This Time had the opportunity to sit down with Bernie Williams, Board member of the DEWC. Below is the short interview with this courageous woman, who is on the frontlines of struggle for women.
Interview with Bernie Williams
Board of Directors member of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center
FTT: Let me know what has been happening at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center over the last 24 hours.
BW: What’s going on is that we are occupying the Center to keep this place open as a 24 hour safe place for women. Last night we had 43 women here, not counting the women who were sitting. We just wanted to address the issue of homelessness with the women here who have been turned away because there’s not enough shelters. There’s not a safe place for women to go to. They are left at a really high risk out here. A woman last night, she was beaten. She stayed with us here last night, and she’s homeless. This is not acceptable. This is really inhumane. There are shelters for the men, but the women are the ones who are really suffering, really suffering.
FTT: Who is here organizing and taking part in this action?
BW: The women from the Downtown Eastside. The members of the Center. And a lot of people that genuinely care about these women, which we’re really grateful for.
FTT: What are the main demands of this action?
BW: The main demands are first to keep this place open as a safe 24 hour place. But we need the money! We need the funds. We need this place, but the flip side to that is that we need social housing. When I walk through the Downtown Eastside - I’ve been doing this work for 22 years - it’s not gotten better. With [the 2010 Olympics] coming, everybody is just painting a different picture of what reality is. Reality is that people are homeless down here. Women don’t have social housing. We need properly run places to look after these women. Not people that have Masters’ degrees that go on for days or PhD’s, we need people who genuinely care and have the compassion to work with these women. You know, I don’t get paid for the job I do. I do everything here because I care about these women.
FTT: Since this action began have you had any response from the government?
BW: I spoke to Jenny Kwan a few hours ago, but she is the only one from the Provincial government that has contacted us. Now we have a woman down here from the city, but nothing yet from the Federal. We need a response from all three levels of government.
FTT: What are your plans for the future, where is this going?
BW: We are going to stay here. We’re not going away. If they still don’t come down, then we are going to take these streets. We’re going to put tents through the streets. We’re going to do whatever we need to do to keep on going.
FTT: What message do you want to send to people out there?
BW: Well, just come out and support us. These are mothers, these are sisters, these are daughters, these are grandmothers here. They belong to somebody, whatever their circumstances. Whatever happened in their life to make them end up here is really trivial. They are still human beings who have the right to be treated as such. It doesn’t matter what kind of lifestyle they have, it has no bearing. They are homeless women.
I feel ashamed to even be a part of this country. I never have recognized myself as a “Canadian”, I am a North American Indigenous woman, and I am ashamed to be in this country. I see what happens to these women, who are being violated every minute that these doors are closed, every minute they are being hurt out there. Nobody sees what we see. That is my message. Come out and support us. Rally for these women because you never know when this could happen to you. I never take things for granted and that’s my message.
FTT: You’re all strong women down here. Thank you for the interview.
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