Vania Singh lives at the Downtown Eastside's Imouto House. Photo by Katie Hyslop.
Imouto Housing for Young Women was Vania Singh’s last option. Her former roommate broke their lease, leaving Singh, who had only $375 from British Columbia’s social assistance shelter allowance to cover rent. Unable to afford the place alone, she turned to the supportive housing project for young women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES).
“I went from having my own place, where my girlfriend can come over and we can hang out and not give a fuck, to now being here where she can come and sit in [the kitchen at Imouto House],” Singh told Megaphone in July. “We can’t go and hang out and have our own time. Life sucks.”
Singh isn’t thrilled with her current living situation. But before Imouto House opened two years ago, girls who needed low-barrier housing didn’t have a place to turn. Singh is 20 years old and part Indian, German and First Nations. Her short brown hair is slicked back, her black AC/ DC T-shirt has the sleeves cut off, and her skin is flecked with DIY tattoos and a faded bruise under her left eye. She looks tough. Growing up around the DTES, she had to be.
Although Singh spent most of her childhood in the nearby Grandview- Woodlands neighbourhood, she says she has been coming to the inner city regularly since she was a small child.
“My mom was a [drug] user and she’d bring me down and sit me out front of like a bar for like half an hour while she goes inside and I’d just be standing on East Hastings like, ‘What is going on? Why are these people talking to me?’” she recalls, guessing she was six years old at the time. Her father died when she was just a baby. Her mother passed away when she was 11.
“I understood [the neighbourhood] at a very young age.”
In and out of care from age five until at 16 she chose to live on her own, Singh knows from experience girls growing up in the Vancouver’s inner city—a mix of neighbourhoods that include Chinatown, the DTES, Strathcona and the edges of Grandview-Woodland—are dealing with a lot. Poverty, precarious housing, early sexualization, drugs, alcohol and violence are huge threads that weave through the lives of girls and women in the community.
Decades of activism and media attention to these issues, however, have hammered home the need for police protection and community solutions to the violence and trauma inflicted on females in the area.
Now community service providers are working with schools, the city, police and the provincial government to provide safe places and community outreach for girls who would otherwise fall through the cracks.
It’s now easier to be a girl like Singh in Vancouver’s inner city. But it’s still much harder than it should be.
Fraught with danger
It’s little wonder that issues facing young women in the DTES long went unaddressed. Only 40 per cent of the neighbourhood’s population is female, and only 10 per cent are under 19. There are more women in nearby Strathcona—60 per cent of the population, with more single moms than the city-wide average—and slightly more kids (16 per cent), but overall, girls are a minority in the inner city. Because of the high incidence of poverty, mental health issues and substance abuse in the community, inner city crime rates are high. In 2006, almost 35 per cent of serious physical assaults reported in Vancouver happened in the area, as well as more than 20 per cent of the robberies and more than 15 per cent of sexual assaults.
And that’s just the reported crimes— the City of Vancouver’s 2012 profile of the DTES suggests that accounting for unreported crimes would significantly increase the statistics.
Reported sexual assault and violence against women rates are double of what they are in the rest of Vancouver. Missing persons posters featuring young women, most often Aboriginal, are a common sight in the neighbourhood.
Lorelei Williams, outreach coordinator at the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre Society, has lost family members to violence. Her Aunt Belinda disappeared two years before she was born, while the DNA of her cousin Tanya Holder, who disappeared in 1996, was found on serial killer Robert Pickton’s Port Coquitlam farm.
Williams, who formed the Butterflies in Spirit dance troupe to honour the missing and murdered women of the area, says the ongoing violence and exploitation of women and girls in the inner city mars the healing process.
She would know. She counsels young Aboriginal girls and women in the area. The issues facing DTES girls are similar to those she experienced herself, growing up in Mount Pleasant when it was still a sex-worker stroll. She remembers men soliciting her and her friends for sex before they finished elementary school.
Now living in Chinatown, Williams is afraid to let her eight-year-old daughter walk to the store alone. She cites an example of the dangers for girls in the area: last year when Butterflies in Spirit had a practice space near Abbott and West Hastings, Williams was late meeting their youngest member, a 12-year-old girl, at the bus stop.
“I was just across the street when she was getting off the bus, and I was waiting for the light to change. And just in that moment of her getting off the bus and standing there, waiting, this guy came and was talking to her, and she’s only 12 years old,” she recalls. “I went running across and I [yelled] ‘Trinity!’ and she looks—she had no idea what’s going on—and that guy saw me and just left right away.”
Too many victims
Mona Woodward already knew the DTES was an unsafe space for women in 2010 when her cousin, Ashley Machiskinic, was found dead outside the Regent Hotel. Police called it a suicide. Meanwhile friends, family and community members insisted Machiskinic was murdered. By then, Woodward says, she'd had enough of the violence and indifference.
Earlier that year, B.C. prosecutors stayed 20 murder charges against convicted serial killer Robert Pickton.
His victims, overwhelmingly Aboriginal women involved in the sex trade, were from the neighbourhood. But despite protests from the community and some VPD officers as early as the mid 1990s that a serial killer was preying on women in the area, the disappearances were dismissed because of the women’s background.
It took until 2002—seven years after the first woman disappeared—for police to make an arrest. The 2012 Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry found the police had been biased against the victims because of their poverty and work in the sex trade.
Along with hundreds of Aboriginal women and DTES advocates, Woodward, executive director for the Aboriginal Front Door Society, marched to the steps of the Vancouver Police Department headquarters (then located at Main and Hastings) to demand a meeting with Chief Jim Chu. Inside the headquarters lobby, seven women had already occupied the space, linking arms and refusing to leave.
The protest was effective, becoming the catalyst for Project Sister Watch, a program within the VPD designed to protect women and girls in the DTES from violence.
Since then, Woodward credits Sister Watch with the arrest of several sexual predators, including Martin Tremblay, who was charged with sexual assault and providing drugs to minors in incidences involving four different girls under 18. But she says the charges don’t reveal the true extent of his crimes.
“There were so many victims that were coming forth that we had to do a healing circle with the youth [at Aboriginal Front Door Society],” she told Megaphone. But police response to violence against women is improving. Where Woodward says police didn’t close the Regent Hotel when her cousin died, the murder of a woman at The Cobalt in 2012 was handled differently.
“They had shut down the whole hotel, nobody was allowed in or out,” she recalled, adding that a meeting between police, the family, the provincial coroners office and community members was convened a couple of days later. “We had the community [meeting] to learn more about what happened, but also to be able to do referrals and offer [community members] support and assistance in dealing with the trauma that they had witnessed.”
Cycles of trauma and abuse
Back at Imouto House, Vania Singh describes the challenges of living in the inner city. She feels safe living there, but as a former crystal meth user, she’s reminded of the drug she needs to stay away from every time she steps outside.
“I’m surrounded by shit that I’m trying not to do every day, and it’s kind of hard not to think about that when it’s in your face 24-motherfucking-seven,” she said. She stopped using the drug before she moved into Imouto House last January.
“I know that if I do [meth] I have a lot to lose, and then I’m never going to get out of here. So I’d rather get out of here first before I decide to ever do that.”
But there aren’t many places Singh can live in the city on $375 per month. She was already kicked out of Native Housing for partying, and can’t afford most places on her own.
Imouto House is intended to be the last option for young women in the DTES who need safe, supportive housing in addition to physical, mental health and employment services.
The program remains controversial because of its location, its mandate of taking in girls as young as 16 and its low-barrier status, meaning residents don’t have to stop using drugs or drinking.
However, room checks have increased, Singh says, since a 19-year- old Aboriginal woman died at Imouto House of an apparent heroin overdose last March (the only fatality there to date).
When Megaphone spoke to Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society, the non-profit that operates Imouto House, she said the young woman had moved into the house in September 2012 after being evicted from two other supportive housing programs in Vancouver. Her mother, who lived in the area, also had a history of substance abuse, as did her grandmother. Abbott points the finger at a cycle of trauma and addictions in her family—and many Aboriginal families in general— connected to the residential school system.
“There’s a big systemic context to the death that is unrelated to Imouto and unrelated in some ways to the Downtown Eastside,” she said.
Searching for solutions
Some of Imouto House’s biggest critics—Aboriginal Life Enhancement in Vancouver Society, Ray-Cam Community Centre and the Network of Inner City Services Society (NICSS) to name a few—are trying to provide a solution of their own for struggling inner city girls. They’re part of Our Place, acoalition of service providers, community organizations and residents of the inner city designed to offer what they call place-based services: services the community has asked for in places they already access, like community centres, neighbourhood houses and schools.
The two programs approach the dangers young women face in Vancouver’s inner city differently. Imouto House aims to help young women pick up the pieces of their lives, while Our Place tries to prevent young girls—and boys and families— from getting to that point in the first place.
Our Place works with community centres like Ray-Cam, health providers like the BC Women’s and Children’s Health Centre and service providers like the NICSS, to support inner-city residents from conception up to and including old age.
“We want to make sure that they’re successful in life: being able to finish school, able to be employed, able to be healthy and have food on the table, and able to have some dreams and hopes and have those fulfilled,” said Kate Hodgson, NICSS executive director.
One of those programs is Roving Leaders, operated by NICSS in partnership with several community centres in the area. Designed to connect with youth 10-14 who aren’t already involved with the community centres or neighbourhood houses, Roving Leaders are youth workers who develop a relationship with these youth by meeting with them wherever they hang out.
By building a relationship with these kids—mostly Aboriginal or recent immigrants—Roving Leaders connects them and their families to programs and support offered by the neighbourhood centres.
“[Roving Leaders] are [trained] youth workers and often young people who have grown up in the community and have experience doing community work and have youth work skills,” said Hodgson.
If the current program offerings don’t suit a child or family’s needs, Roving Leaders will work with the youth and their family to develop a program at the neighbourhood centre that will.
Hodgson says Roving Leaders connected with 172 different youth in 2012, providing 94 per cent with personal support like accompanying them to court, assisting with intake into drug and alcohol treatment, and obtaining help for self-harm, domestic violence and sexual health issues.
Replicating government supports
There are a variety of programs being offered for girls and their families in the inner city through Our Place and their partners. Ray-Cam Community Centre in Strathcona serves an estimated 200 kids a month in their youth programs, including two specifically for girls: Girlz Club for girls aged 6-9 and Girlzspace for teenagers.
Hodgsen says Our Place and community centres like Ray-Cam work to break down the barriers to services low-income and newcomer families often face, whether that’s from their low-income status, past traumas or lack of support offered by mainstream services.
“We have a lot of young people who are not in the care of the ministry, who might be getting social services in different ways, whether that’s the justice system or other social services, but they aren’t eligible to have a transition worker help them as they transition through adulthood,” said Hodgson. These are the services Our Place is looking to replicate for these youth through programs like the RICHER Initiative, pairing nurses and family doctors with community centres and schools to ensure families have access to proper medical care, or Bright Family Futures, which supports young parents ages 15 to 30 and their children. All of these programs are offered for free.
Programs like these are designed to make sure kids don’t have to grow up like Singh did. Thanks to a stable spot in supportive housing, Singh now has a chance to turn her life around.
That doesn’t mean she has to like it, though.
“This place is good for people that need it, I guess,” she said. “I do enjoy having people that I can talk to. But at the same time I would enjoy being able to do what I want whenever I want to.”
But Lorelei Williams says girls and young women receiving services in the inner city often look for ways to give back. “When they can finally get out of what they’ve been going through, they can become stronger and help people who were there where they were before, I’ve noticed,” she said.
“You turn around and help others.”
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