photos: Mary Joe (left), Maureen (centre), and Bel (top right) live in supportive housing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. They participated in a recent study that found a widespread lack of safety for women in the city’s supportive housing buildings. Photo: Jac

No safe haven

Women lack safety in supportive housing, research finds.

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After a harrowing struggle with homelessness while they searched
for lodgings that would accept their three cats, Maureen, her partner, and her 17-year-old daughter finally found a room in a downtown Vancouver supportive housing building.

Two weeks later, she heard screaming. A woman had been dragged out of
her room and beaten to death.

“It was really frightening,” Maureen, who now lives near the Metrotown shopping centre in Burnaby, recalls. “Police were knocking on the door. I didn’t know what to do. It really changed my views around the safety in the building, especially the safety of my daughter. I was very suspicious.”

Very sadly, stories like these are not extraordinary because they are so great in number. Social worker Ferma Ravn-Greenway recalls a client telling her about a smell coming from the hallway of a supportive housing building. Tenants complained to management about the smell who, without visiting the site, insisted a rat had probably died in the walls. Over the course of a few days,
the stench became unbearable. The situation was eventually investigated and a grim discovery was made: a tenant, left unchecked, had died alone in her room.

Horror stories like these prompted Ravn- Greenway to conduct research on women’s perspectives of safety in supportive housing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

The research formed the bulk of her Master of Social Work thesis. Ravn- Greenway found Downtown Eastside women felt very unsafe and fearful in their own homes. Her findings are echoed in a late 2013 report published by a coalition of 15 organizations serving women in the DTES, which Megaphone news editor Katie Hyslop reported on last month.

In the next few months, Ravn-Greenway plans to share the stories of her 10 research participants, available through the UBC library, in an effort to raise awareness about the unsafe conditions and promote policy change. She will also be preparing
a shorter manuscript for publication in a professional journal later this year.

“There’s no reason for this negligence,” Ravn-Greenway says. “It’s so bizarre to
me. It’s not a lack of funding issue, I don’t think. There’s something else going on.
The only reason that I can really think of
for this type of behaviour is stigma and discrimination. That’s the underlying issue.”

Many who live in the Downtown Eastside have faced discrimination due to classism, sexism, and racism, she adds.

“It’s about funders not wanting to put up some money in order to give people decent housing,” she says. “They feel like they can just get away with these types of housing conditions.”

'No proper management, no support'
When she first moved into her room, Maureen and her family couldn’t get over its state.

“It was very unclean,” she said. “We were absolutely horrified. We all were looking at each other, thinking, ‘What the hell?’ There was no proper management, no support there."

Bed bugs and filthy bathroom conditions emerged as primary complaints that had long-term consequences. After a particularly bad bed bug infestation, one woman participating in the study refused to use
her bed. She slept sitting up and eventually had to receive counselling for the trauma.

Shared bathrooms, the research found, were not regularly cleaned. Among the filth were feces and bloodstains. They
also proved unsafe places at night with strangers wandering in due to a lack of security. To remedy this, some women had makeshift commodes in their rooms.

“Bathrooms are very intimate spaces and people should have their own,” Ravn-Greenway says. The living conditions many women put up with for years was, as she describes it, “unfair and demeaning,” adding “Many tenants have multi-complex, physical disabilities and health issues such as kidney disorders, which require them to use the bathroom continually during the night.”

Former DTES residents like Maureen agree that it doesn’t have to be this way. “All women have the inherent right to live without violence or fear,” she says, explaining her reasons for participating in the research.

A lack of trust
Similar to Maureen, other study participants feared conflict and could not trust housing staff to protect them. That fear drove many to isolate in their rooms. Often times, staff members weren’t even around, leading to greater lack of security.

A provincial government housing
policy stipulates that there needs to be
at least some daily on-site support for residents, Ravn-Greenway says. This
could be anywhere from an hour a day 
to round-the-clock support. “In a lot of buildings, there wouldn’t be front-desk monitoring, which is really important,” she says. “It’s something the women brought up again and again as being needed.”

Some housing came with constant surveillance and caring management. If home-seekers were lucky enough, they could be placed in one of these buildings.

Bel, another research participant, is satisfied with the level of security and the kindness of management in her residence with the McLaren Housing Society in Downtown South.

“I was very lucky,” she says. “I hear stories of other places being unsafe. Here, there are cameras on every floor. It’s a good system.
I like having baths though, but there are only shower stalls. That’s my only flaw.”

Like Bel, Mary Joe stumbled upon
 good management at Powell Place in the Downtown Eastside. When she was bullied by men who wouldn’t leave her alone, for example, staff stepped in on her behalf.

“It never lasted long because the men were evicted and the manager had police escort them out of the building,” Mary Joe says. “The manager wouldn’t take shit from nobody,” she adds with a hearty laugh.

That Bel and Mary Joe happened upon satisfactory management—a seeming anomaly in supportive housing—suggests a larger problem. There’s a widespread lack of regulation and consistency in Vancouver’s supportive housing facilities. Even though fire-code and standards-of-maintenance inspectors regularly visit the buildings, many issues remain unresolved, the women say.

Between a rock and a hard place
Downtown Eastside social workers have been known to recommend that their clients stay in homeless shelters instead of taking units in supportive housing buildings with bad reputations.

Life in homeless shelters—notably unpleasant, unstable, and sometimes unsafe, especially for women—
is sadly preferable to permanent housing in a derelict, unhygienic, and dangerous building.

No matter how bad the living situation, individuals who’ve managed to land spots in supportive housing are no longer the priority in the eyes of homeless outreach and support workers looking to find lodgings for homeless clients. When
 other supportive units become available, those who are homeless take precedence, leaving precariously-housed tenants with little hope of improving their situation.

To remain homeless means having a better chance at adequate housing.

Part of the problem, Ravn-Greenway suggests, lies in the fact that one-third of BC Housing’s supportive housing stock violates fire code and standard-of-maintenance bylaws, according to the City of Vancouver’s list of problem rental buildings.

“This [suggests] mis-management 
of buildings or not enough funding given to buildings to properly ensure the safety of tenants,” she says, “which will likely be a continuing problem.”

Mary Joe is one of many people who chose to stay homeless instead of accept a spot
 in substandard housing. She stayed in a Vancouver homeless shelter for five years before finding supportive housing that was livable. “Staff at the shelter told me that I should wait for a good place,” she says.

Ravn-Greenway wants her study to raise awareness through media and community attention, putting pressure on governments.
She would ideally like to see BC Housing and other large-scale funders hire professionals to carry out regular quality control assessments and use tenant feedback mechanisms to evaluate the quality of housing.

If funding for supportive housing was based on passing these evaluations, it would ensure safety of the buildings and competency of management, she says.

The provincial government’s Policy Statement on Class 3 Supportive Housing could also be revised to include a definition of tenants’ safety and a discussion on how to maintain it. This would put pressure on supportive housing providers who must follow this policy in order to get classification.

Despite the strong network of community services working to improve things on the ground, frontline workers have limited time and ability to advocate for social change.

While Ravn-Greenway’s research focused on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, supportive housing workers in Victoria echoed similar concerns about an overall lack of consistency in how supportive housing is operated and managed.

“You’re really focusing on supporting people,” Ravn-Greenway says of frontline work. “A lot of non-profits don’t have enough money to be able to have enough staff to really advocate for social change.”

Maureen feels women need to know where to go to find help and know their rights. Organizations such as the DTES Women’s Centre, Carnegie Community Action Project, and Vancouver Native Health Society have provided invaluable support for vulnerable women. Several participants also listed the Vancouver in Need of Help Society as a place that helped them with their housing issues. More visible organizations like these would be effective.

“We’re trying to empower women and educate the public with this project,” Maureen says. “You’re so stressed out with the day- to-day unsafe conditions, that it’s hard to find help or focus on anything else when you’re too busy surviving.”

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