Poor women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside respond to Trudeau’s $40 million for women’s shelters

On April 4th, 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $207 million COVID-19 aid package for homeless people and women fleeing violence. Packing the funding for both groups together makes it seem like the paltry amount going to communities that Trudeau called “uniquely vulnerable” to COVID-19 is more than it is. Of the hundreds of billions of dollars Canada is spending on managing the COVID-19 crisis, the vast majority is devoted to helping banks continue to sell credit, alongside a central bail-out package that pours money into the pockets of banks and bosses. Homeless communities are set to receive just $160 million. $40 million is going to violence against women shelters and sexual assault centers. And $10 million is going to emergency shelters on Indigenous reserves. 

Trudeau explained that the Liberal government is rolling out this package because “no one should have to choose between being somewhere they’re unsafe and risking getting COVID-19.” But Trudeau’s aid package will not liberate Indigenous or working class women from that impossible choice. Trudeau lied when he said “the communities that need this funding have now been identified and money is getting to them” because the money is not going to poor women; it is going to government and non-governmental agencies and organizations that run shelters and crisis centers in order to support their capacities to “manage or prevent an outbreak in their facilities.

Trudeau’s comment about the forced choice between safety from gendered violence and safety from COVID-19 mistakenly associates gendered violence exclusively with private homes. But while colonial and patriarchal violence are at home in domestic spaces, poor and homeless women constantly face similar danger in the streets. There are two problems with Trudeau’s proposal: homeless women face gendered violence and women’s shelters are not safe from COVID-19.

Trudeau’s benefit package locks poor working class women in shelters, erases urban Indigenous families

Vancouver anti-violence organization Battered Women’s Support Services has reported a 300% increase in crisis line calls since the government’s “stay home” orders began. In response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government will provide $40 million to rent new spaces for women fleeing violence shelters and sexual assault crisis centres and provide physical barriers for women in existing women’s shelters. Trudeau’s aid package continues to stuff women and children into congregate shelters. Women’s shelters are hothouses that could speed up the spread of COVID-19. Women who have recently accessed the Downtown Eastside Women’s Shelter and Powell Place Women’s Shelter have told me that there are 50 women at the former and 65 women at the latter, all piled less than six feet apart in bunk beds.

Trudeau’s plan has no money specifically for urban Indigenous women or families. The entirety of the $10 million the Trudeau government has allotted for Indigenous women and children is going to Indigenous Services Canada to “support 46 emergency Indigenous women and children’s shelters on reserves and in the Yukon.” Indigenous people in Vancouver make up 34% of the sheltered and 46% percent of the unsheltered homeless population, while representing only 2.2% of Vancouver’s total population. And even though there are six women’s shelters in Vancouver, there are only two Indigenous-only shelters – one that is mixed-gendered and one for youth. The lack of funding for poor Indigenous communities in Trudeau’s aid package is an extension of settler violence against Indigenous women and children that seeks to exterminate Indigenous communities.

If Trudeau was truly identifying vulnerable populations and sending money their way, he would not be pouring money into shelters where no woman is safe from COVID-19. And he would not conflate the colonial problem of Indigenous homelessness, which stems from the removal of Indigenous people from their land and the destruction of Indigenous kinship networks, with the “general” problem of ever-increasing homelesness for non-Indigenous people, which results from the government’s continued support for austerity policies that roll back social support for poor working class families.

Gender violence is in the home but it’s also in the streets

Homeless women are women fleeing violence, because to be an Indigenous woman living in the streets of a settler-colonial society means facing genocidal, gendered violence. And to be a working class woman living in the streets of a capitalist society means facing patriarchal violence. Homeless women are more vulnerable to violence by men they don’t know in the form of misogynistic, racist, anti-poor bigotry, and are also more vulnerable to abuse because of their greater economic dependence on men.

Dana, a woman who lives in the Oppenheimer Park tent city, said that her experience fleeing violence landed her on the streets. Since she lost her bed at the women’s shelter up the street, she set up a tent in Oppenheimer, where she said she still navigates abuse from men. She said that she feels forced to constantly choose between abuse from one man, indoors, or danger from police and all the problems of homelessness. She said she feels blame for her choices from a “dominant society” that says “you chose to be down here,” when the truth is “you don’t want to go to your abuser.” She said it feels like society is “spitting on you.” For poor Indigenous and working class women, the impossible choice between staying with an abuser or fleeing to the streets to avoid them exposes how complicated it is to survive as a poor woman in Canada.

No sanctuary: no women’s shelters, no transition housing, and no women’s housing

Karen, a member of the Oppenheimer Park community, described transitional housing for women fleeing violence as “different from women’s shelters.” She said, “They’re like a house, you have your own room, if you have kids they live with you, there are maybe 5-6 women in the house, lots of food, lots of baby clothes.” 

Reflecting on her experience living in homeless shelters, Karen said, “A lot of the women there have been there for 10 or 12 years. They’d come in normal and then 5 or 6 years later they’re totally mentally ill.” In the words of the women who were present at a meeting to develop the Women’s Wing of the Stewart Squat at Oppenheimer Park, the reasons women’s health deteriorates in shelters is because women have no privacy, are undernourished, and are “unable to do the only things that make us sane,” such as painting or just having peace and quiet. But many women stay in shelters indefinitely because there is nowhere that is affordable to live as a single woman who is on welfare, disability or working minimum wage and part-time jobs. The modular housing buildings and SROs that poor women can afford aren’t as safe from men’s violence as women’s shelters. 

The latest BC homeless count reported there were 511 women among the “visible homeless” in Vancouver, and acknowledged that the true number of homeless women is much greater given that many women stay with friends. Only a minority of women fleeing violence from private households will end up in the type of transitional home Karen mentioned because in Vancouver there are only ten of these buildings. Others end up on the streets or in shelters where women’s flight from violence is eclipsed by the “decision” to be on the street.

Social worker control is punishment and continues child apprehensions

British Columbia’s spectrum of shelter to institutional family housing is a theater for child apprehension, where poor women are punished for their poverty by being isolated from their families. When they are reunited, it is on the condition that they live under the watchdog eye of community support workers who work hand in hand with the Ministry of Child and Family Development and police.

Rhonda, an Indigenous woman living in Oppenheimer Park, said she does not need staff or a social worker. “All I need is a home,” she said. Although the women and family buildings tend to be newer and therefore nicer, there are not nearly enough in Vancouver for poor families. Women I spoke with said these buildings often do not feel like homes because they cause constant involuntary exposure to tense altercations with other women, staff and health authorities, and police.

Most of the little social housing that is being built specifically for women with kids is “supportive” family housing operated by social service organizations such as RainCity, Atira, and PHS. Heather, an Ojibwe woman who lives in an SRO in Chinatown, said BC Housing “thinks that I should wait until I get into a family building like the Budzey or MacLean Park housing for me to have my daughter.” She has no idea when that will be.

“We have to band together or we’ll all be in hell”

Instead of Trudeau’s benefit plan, which continues to contain some women in congregate shelters while leaving most women in harm’s way in abusive home environments or in danger on the streets, we believe the only thing that will save our communities is us naming and fighting for what we need to survive. 

All poor Indigenous and working class people should be eligible for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit regardless of how much money we made, or what job we had in the previous year. Women especially need these benefits so we are less socially and economically dependent on abusive men. 

All vacant hotels and residential rooms should be opened for all women and trans, two-spirit, and gender-nonconforming people fleeing violence, whether from private households, modulars, SROs, shelters, or the street. Housed working class and middle-class women need a safe place to live too. The increased intimate partner violence in private households and the rising numbers of homeless women shows women’s class status is more precarious than men’s, as we remain unappreciated “guests” even in our own homes.

But women are not waiting for Trudeau or any politician to save us. The #Squat2Survive movement can get us into healthier vacant buildings and off the streets and out of shelters, modulars and SROs where we are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Women participating in the squats have created “Women’s Wings” in order to create space where women and trans people can work together and identify our particular needs, uninhibited by the social domination of men in mixed-gender spaces where our demands and interests are often sidelined. Women’s Wings in the #Squat2Survive movement are both a practical necessity and the exercise of a women’s liberation and sovereignist politics that does not turn its back on poor Indigenous and working-class women. As long as women are in danger, we have no choice but to take over empty buildings. As Dana said at the Oppenheimer women’s meeting, poor women “have to band together or we’ll all be in hell.” If hell is a COVID-19 hothouse shelter, then the Women’s Wing of the #Squat2Survive movement is our salvation.

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