No Place Like Home?: A housing project for young women who want to stay in the Downtown Eastside causes controversy

When faced with the question of how to approach young women suffering from drug addiction, homelessness or abuse in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), the quick answer is to get those kids out of there. Somewhere safe from the predators: drug dealers, pimps and abusers.


Most people in trouble are eager to leave for another neighbourhood. But there is a small number of who don’t want to leave, and when service organizations move them out, they often return to the neighbourhood only to end up back in trouble.


A new housing project for young women in the DTES is aimed at those not quite ready to go. Designed as a transitional living space, service providers at Imouto Housing for Young Women will help young women get their lives on track before they move out of the neighbourhood. But the program isn’t without its critics, those who believe the community was not properly consulted, who claim if they had been, the unanimous answer would have been “no way”.


“Little Sister” House


Formerly the International Hotel at 120 Jackson Street, Imouto House—Japanese for “little sister”—will house 15 young women, ages 16 to 24, facing homelessness, drug addiction, abuse, homophobia, pregnancy or sex work, but who aren’t quite ready to leave the place they call home.


Owned and operated by Atria Resource Society, there are currently four young women 19 years of age and older living in the house, with the rest moving in over the next six weeks.


“The idea had been that we would bring the first five in over the course of three weeks, and then the next five in over the course of the next three weeks, and then the next five in like that,” says Michelle Fortin, executive director of Watari, one of the lead youth organizations offering services at Imouto.


“You want to have young women understand this is their space and they need to be as responsible as the adults in there in terms of creating as much safety as possible.”


Exactly who lives in the house is a decision made on the basis of recommendations of the Hard Target Project, a group of outreach workers that include representatives from Watari, the Carnegie Outreach Project, Covenant House, PLEA, Directions, the Boys and Girls Club and the Urban Native Youth Association, as well as police officers, social workers and foster parents.


A temporary living space, young women will live at Imouto for up to a year, receiving services and personalized counselling from Watari and other youth organizations like the Vancouver Boys and Girls Club and the Inner City Youth Mental Health Team, as well as doctors from BC Women’s Hospital. Once they’re ready to transition out, they will be moved to other, more permanent housing throughout Vancouver.


“What we’re doing is something different, putting in as many safeguards as we can, involving young women in the development of the proposal of the project, and having a steering committee, an advisory board, that’s actually fairly deep in terms of relationships to the community, capacity and service delivery, and histories of collaboration,” says Fortin.


The advisory board includes the City of Vancouver, the Ministry of Child and Family Development, the Vancouver Police Department, the Vancouver Foundation, Sheway and Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services, among others.


Right to a safer environment violated: Clark


Scott Clark, spokesperson for Aboriginal Life In Vancouver Enhancement society (ALIVE), thinks Imouto House is a bad idea, one that exposes the young women living there to more physical, mental and emotional damage.


“What they’re targeting is 16 to 19. Most of those girls are going to have mental health issues, they’re going to be underdeveloped intellectually, the Ministry (of Child and Family Development) is going to have the responsibility to deal with them. We’re just saying that the Ministry is dropping the ball on this by allowing this to happen,” he says.


“We’ve got to be working together to get them out, straight up. Get to a safer community. It violates their rights to a safe environment.”


Clark says ALIVE isn’t the only group that feels this way, and names the Aboriginal Front Door Society, Justice For Girls, the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network and representatives of the DTES Women’s Centre, as other critics of the project.


“The mothers and other young people that we’ve spoken to are saying, ‘You know what? We want to be pulled out of the Downtown Eastside. We need to be pulled out of the Downtown Eastside,’ and we need responsible programs that will do that,” he says.


ALIVE only found out about the project through articles published in the Vancouver Courier earlier in the summer, which prompted them to start a petition against the project. Clark accuses Atira of not consulting with the community first and putting their own interests in building an empire in the DTES over the safety of the young women.


ALIVE requested a meeting with Atira, which accepted but then cancelled because of staff vacations. They didn’t get to meet with the organization and Watari until the beginning of September, when they were informed at the end of the meeting that two young women had already moved in.


Most of the information ALIVE has about the project comes from the Courier’s articles and Atira’s reports, which includes outdated information. For example, the project originally was designed to house 25 women, but will now only house 15. Clark also cites Atira’s other project, a six-unit shipping container housing project at 502 Alexander St. as being related to the project. But Atira says the project is for 12 adult women who could move to other neighbourhoods if they chose.


Despite the fact that young women are already moving in, Clark vows to continue to fight against Imouto House.


“What we’re saying is there are many other options that we can move these girls to, and we’ll work with you. We’re sending them all these organizations that deal with that body of people. But the project needs to be stopped and that building needs to be redirected in another area,” he says.


No one called us: Fortin


Fortin says information about the project has been available to community members for quite some time now, both through mailouts to the neighbourhood and emails to the Network of Inner City Community Services Society, of which ALIVE is a member. No one has contacted her organization for more information.


“I work directly across the street from many of the people who are opposed to this project, and not a one of them has spoken with me. Not one of them came to a meeting, not one of them made a phone call. There were petitions put out in the community before anyone had even had an informational interview with us,” she says.


She asserts there was plenty of community involvement in the establishment of this project, but that no project in the DTES involves every community group. They did seek input from one key group, however-the young women who aren’t ready to leave the neighbourhood.


“As an organization we’ve been working specifically with this population for the 25 years that we’ve been around, and this is driven by the population that we’re serving, it’s not a ‘I thought this might be a good idea.’ This is actually driven by the young women that we live with,” she says.

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