Sexual assaults prompt call for 24-hour women’s shelter in Vancouver

2/28/11

Vancouver City Council will debate the need for a 24-hour emergency homeless shelter for women after several sexual assaults were reported at a mixed facility in the Downtown Eastside.

Reports of six sexual assaults since Oct. 30, 2010, at First United Church’s shelter prompted city councillor Ellen Woodsworth to draft a motion for a 24-hour women’s shelter that will be brought to council on Tuesday.

Alice Kendall of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre said groups have been calling for such a facility for years.

“When First United opened, there was a big focus on homelessness in the city of Vancouver, and First United stepped forward with an answer to allow the province and the city off the hook,” Ms. Kendall said.

First United sleeps 250 to 300 people every night on beds, pews and the floor.

Sandra Severs, deputy executive minister of First United, said the church has worked with Vancouver police for the past three years to help train staff.

“Safety is our concern,” Ms. Severs said. “We’re working really hard to make this place as safe as possible for everyone who chooses to be here.”

First United has a separate overnight room for women only, staffed by women, which operates from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. Ms. Severs said that in the mornings, a lineup of 400 people for breakfast usually runs into the women’s area.

“We’ve been trying to figure out how we might improve the flow of people, but up until this point, that’s been the reason” that the women can’t stay longer, Ms. Severs said. “We’re bursting.”

According to Ms. Woodsworth, the city has so far lacked the funds to staff a 24-hour women’s drop-in. Currently, women staying in women-only shelters across the city must leave in the early morning, whereas in 24-hour mixed shelters, they can sleep longer.

“Obviously, if you’re coming in the middle of the night, the place that you’re going to want to sleep, no matter how safe or unsafe it is, is the area you can sleep the longest,” Kate Gibson of WISH Drop-In Centre Society said.

Chris Hellewell, co-manager of New Fountain Shelter, said his facility tries to designate a room for women only, but that not enough women ask for a separate sleeping area to justify a permanent space. The smaller, mixed HEAT shelter sleeps 40 people each night, and almost all are men, he said.

“Usually most women in the shelter are attached to a man,” Mr. Hellewell said. “If someone wants to be away from men, we refer them to other shelters.”

First United is a “low barrier” shelter, meaning it accepts people who may be intoxicated or high. Both Mr. Hellewell and Ms. Kendall said they don’t think that contributed to the assaults. Mr. Hellewell added that New Fountain, which has similar policies, has had no reports of sexual assaults.

“When people are drunk or high, there are challenges, but if you know how to deal with those challenges, they’re not really a problem,” said Mark Townsend of Portland Hotel Society, which runs New Fountain. “You have to take them seriously, and have your staff trained and able to deal with those things.”

Vancouver police Constable Lindsey Houghton said he doesn’t know whether the assaults at First United involved drugs or alcohol, but that further details would be available as early as Tuesday.

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