photos: Clients of the the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre express some love for the organization. Photos submitted.

'Round-the-clock resource

The only low-barrier drop-in space for women in the Downtown Eastside is set to open 24/7.

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What started as a collaboration for change 40 years ago will soon be a 24/7 service.

The Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC) has renovated its overnight shelter to keep up with the ever-increasing demand from the community and will be open around the clock, seven days a week, starting on International Women's Day (March 8).

Formally launched in 1978, the centre started as a partnership between a diverse group of impoverished women, Strathcona-area Chinese seniors, Indigenous women and faith-based charities. At the time, the desire for a females-only safe space transcended all differences in culture, class and age.

A dearth of space for women persists today. Out of the 250 organizations and service providers on the Downtown Eastside, only seven are women’s organizations and three are women-only spaces. DEWC provides the only low-barrier drop-in space for all women. (WISH operates a low-barrier shelter for women who work in the survival sex trade industry).

The renovated DEWC shelter, located at 302 Columbia St., will have 60 beds, rather than the previous 50 cots, and a new commercial kitchen for meal service. Starting next month (March), it will also be a 24-hour operation instead of a night-time shelter. The shelter was created in 2006 after women in the neighbourhood took action after several sexual assaults occurred at co-ed shelters, says DEWC board member Priscillia Tait.

“Women from the Power of Women group and some elders said, ‘Hey, we need housing’,” says Tait, who is also a Megaphone vendor.

The group physically occupied the centre and refused to leave until funding for an emergency shelter was supplied by BC Housing.

Today, the shelter continues to offer safe haven for women, who don’t need identification to be there and aren’t required to reserve a spot. Women are able to line up when the shelter opens and are welcome to stay as long as they need, without any time-limit, explains Harsha Walia, the centre’s coordinator.

When Walia started working at the centre in 2005, she says around 250 women accessed the space every day. Now that number has doubled, with 350 women coming to the drop-in centre and 150 accessing the overnight shelter. (Women sleep in shifts and rarely stay the whole night).

The increase is largely due to across-the-board policies developed for the neighbourhood to battle poverty and homelessness, says Walia, which do not specifically address how gender-based violence leads to women being disproportionately murdered, having their children apprehended, or suffering fatal overdoses, she notes.

In the early 1980s, when Indigenous women started vanishing from the area, members of the women’s centre contacted the police, but the reports were ignored, Walia says. This invisibility continued into the ’90s, culminating with the Robert Pickton case.

“The horrific violence that Indigenous women and girls still face in the neighbourhood is one of the most salient reasons for a women’s-only space,” says Walia.

The centre’s membership is overwhelmingly populated with visible minorities—out of the 500 women who access the centre daily, 70 per cent identify as being Indigenous or of mixed heritage and 25 per cent are Chinese seniors, Walia says.

In addition to the drop-in centre and shelter, DEWC also offers hot meals— around 15,000 each month—and 30 types of services. Programs such as beading, tai chi and visual journalling help women express themselves. Services such as HIV case management, housing advocacy and Chinese seniors outreach help them live more comfortable lives.

The Power of Women group is one program that helped Tait. It’s a social justice group of 50 members where women tackle issues around housing, violence, child apprehension and legal rights, she says. She recalls one guest speaker guiding women through interactions with the police, teaching them their rights and explaining what type of questions to ask, such as, “Am I being detained?”

During her own encounter with Vancouver Police, “I thought I was going to jail. It was really scary,” says Tait.

When she first started going to the centre for lunch with her young son in 1997, Tait says she was shy. Now she has found her voice and acts as the master of ceremonies for the DTES Women’s March and sits on the DEWC board of directors.

Tait says the centre needs more space and is happy it’s expanding. She hopes to see it continue to grow. In particular, Tait says the centre needs more space where seniors can relax. She would like to see industrial- size washing machines and a rooftop garden where women can relax, harvest food and “frolic too,” she says laughing.

One of the things everyone can do to support the centre is to take a stand against policies that force women into poverty, says Walia. She encourages everyone to speak up for justice until trauma and crisis centres are no longer needed.

The Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre provides support to more than 500 women, children and seniors each day, including hot meals, free clothing, secure mailing addresses, phone and computer access, toilets and showers, toiletries, feminine hygiene products, harm reduction supplies, first aid and more.

For more information visit or call 604-681-8480.

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312 Main St
Vancouver, BC
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