A Vancouver non-profit for ending violence against women says a recent survey it conducted confirms the level of sexual abuse unhoused women face and raises questions about how effective current outreach work is.
Between November 2022 and January 2023, Atira Women’s Resource Society connected with 68 women staying in tents at the intersection of Main and Hastings streets in the Downtown Eastside.
That number in and of itself was a surprise, according to the non-profit’s CEO Janice Abbott. They didn’t expect so many women to be at that single spot.
Not all of the women were actually living in the tents there full-time, though. Of the 50 women included in the final results, 53.6 per cent said they were sleeping in a tent, while another 33.8 per cent said they were sleeping on the sidewalk or in an alley and 12.6 per cent said they were staying in a single room occupancy (SRO) unit.
The majority (54.2 per cent) said they had been in those living conditions for at least a year.
Most had been struggling with housing for even longer, though. Close to 55 per cent of the women they hadn’t had secure shelter for at least three years, 30 per cent said it had been at least two years and 15.5 per cent said it had been between one and two years.
Most shocking to Abbott was the number of respondents who said they had never been offered housing during that time (65 per cent) or been meaningfully contacted by an outreach worker (66 per cent). Some said they had spoken to an outreach team before, but that they didn’t feel like the workers cared about them and decided not to stay in contact.
Abbott says she wonders whether the fact that most outreach teams work during the day from Monday to Friday means they are missing a significant portion of unhoused women. The non-profit plans to explore the reasons behind that gap and how outreach workers can change their approach in a second survey.
Unsurprising to Abbott, but still of significant concern, was the level of violence the women reported. Every single one of the respondents told surveyors they do not feel safe and that they have been sexually assaulted.
“We hear that from women all the time.”
It doesn’t matter if women are staying in tents, shelters or SROs – risks exist in all the unstable living options. In fact, 35 per cent of the survey respondents said they may not accept a shelter space out of fear for their safety.
Abbott says in shelters people are often staying on cots or beds in communal rooms, without any private space. Even in SROs, where residents have their own rooms, they have to share washrooms. Risk there is compounded by the number of unknown guests who filter through every day.
“If you have to get up in the middle of the night and go use a bathroom, it’s a risky proposition for a woman.”
Beyond sexual violence, women also face conflict with fellow residents, theft and being hunted down by debt collectors if they owe money, according to Abbott.
She says the issues are difficult to address. Increasing staff could help, but residents also report feeling unsafe when they believe their every move is being monitored.
“There’s a balance in a shelter between keeping people safe and surveillance.”
Reducing the size of shelters and SROs and increasing the number of them would be beneficial, Abbott says, but very expensive.
Women in the survey also expressed the need for cleaner and more private spaces, with access to their own washroom and kitchen.
“There aren’t enough options for people obviously, which is part of the reason – not the entire reason, but part of the reason – why we have tents.”
She says they’re conducting the new surveys primarily to inform their own work, but that the non-profit hopes the results impact government policy as well.
On Sunday (March 26), the province promised to deliver 330 new SRO or supportive housing units for the Downtown Eastside by June. It’s not clear whether they will address issues of cleanliness, affordability or safety residents of current units have long decried.