Power & Perspectives: An Interview with Members of the DTES Power to Women group
From the multi-issue series on the neighborhood in the Globe and Mail to international support for Insite (Vancouver’s safer injection site), to ongoing activism around poverty and homelessness within Canada, the living conditions in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside have received much media attention. While many have become accustomed to hearing about the trials and tribulations of life in Canada’s poorest postal code through the analyses presented by experts on poverty, mental illness, and homelessness, there is limited media presence for the voices of those who live within the community. Here, the Knoll interviews members from the Power of Women project at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, a group dedicated to educating and raising awareness on social issues:
“We are a group of women from all walks of life who are either on social assistance, working poor, or homeless; but we are all living in extreme poverty below the poverty line. Many us of are single mothers or have had our children apprehended due to poverty; most of us have chronic physical or mental health issues for example HIV and Hepatitis C; many have drug or alcohol addictions; and a majority have experienced and survived sexual violence and mental, physical, spiritual , and emotional abuse. For indigenous women, we are affected by a multi-generational legacy of the effects of residential schools and a history of colonization and racism.”
The Knoll gives many thanks to Evelyn, Bea, Chilli Bean, Stella, Madeline, Anne Marie, Joan, and Harsha, for donating their time and sharing their experiences to allow for this interview to happen.
On the Power to Women group:
“I like it because it deals with violence against women, homelessness. I like it because I come every Wednesday. Except when I’m sick I don’t attend. I’ve been involved for over two years. They put me on the news on December 5th, over a year ago, when we did the violence against women march. I got to be on the 11 o clock news, and people were like ‘sister’s on TV.’ It’s exciting.”
“…it’s good that the Power to Women Group has the authority as a group, not just one voice as a lone voice, we’re having a… black market…so we did a lot of positive stuff. That’s all.”
On violence against women:
“I think that violence against women is very real, but there is one form of violence against women that is also for men, but more particularly for women, is poverty. Poverty is an extremely violent tool and unless we do something about eliminating conditions that people live in as a result of poverty, we’re not doing enough about violence. The violence I’m particularly referring to about poverty is the fact that we’re not able to access or have the choice of a roof over our head…Why I brought that one up was because I was thinking about the fact that, as a single parent who was a woman, I was not allowed to get a mortgage, but men were. Now, at this time of my life, when I would have a stable roof over my head, which I would actually give to my children because children can’t afford to buy a house anymore, I would live in the basement, and they would at least have some security for their old age. So I find that poverty is one of the very worst violences against women.”
The largest share of persons living in poverty in BC is women aged 18 to 64 in families (21 per cent). This can be attributed to the high rate of poverty among single mothers.
A single parent with one child on welfare earns approximately $14,000 per year, which is almost $12,000 below the poverty line for Vancouver.
On safe spaces for women in the DTES:
“I know that women and children, they can go to Crabtree. It’s on Hastings. I don’t know exactly how it works because I’ve only gone there a couple times for lunch.”
“I went to a meeting last Monday at the Carnegie and they were talking about the police and they are going to put a sticker on the windows, like the (list of SRO hotels like Belmont, Regent), and the police are going to be able to go into the rooms.”
“I ended up on the news and I wasn’t even aware that they filmed me walking down the street They were talking with somebody else, he’s a binner, and apparently the cops had taken all his stuff away… They didn’t ask me permission to put me on there. Like in the background, the guy was still yelling and screaming about his stuff ending up in the garbage, but they didn’t have him on, they had me on! And it doesn’t make any sense. But yep, I don’t know, the police, and everybody, the politicians, they all figure that the Downtown Eastside that they can do just whatever they please, and they get away with it too. And I don’t think that’s right… I want to scream bloody murder.”
On one-way tickets:
“My welfare worker offered me a ticket to where my daughter lives. A one way ticket. Up to Merritt. (pause) I ain’t taking it.”
On the police:
“ … the police, they are doing their job, but some of them…just have an attitude that they wear that uniform and that badge, and they can do whatever they want to the people. (general laughter/agreement). That is very wrong because police are using violence on individuals down here – and it’s just not right…You don’t know what they’re doing behind closed doors. They could be drinking, they could be beating their wives or their husbands, they could be doing drugs. Not every police officer/man down here or police woman are perfect saints, and it really bothers me.”
Vancouver city officials are planning using up to $2.5 million in government funding to enhance surveillance during the 2010 Winter Olympics with street cameras.
Project Homeward Bound gave Atlanta’s homeless a one-way ticket out of town before the 1996 Olympics began. A similar plan has been adopted by the BC Liberals.
On the street sweeps:
“I believe it’s a way for them to get most of the Down Eastside off thestreets during the Olympics…coming closer to the Olympics, the tickets are going to be issued with a [court] summons or warrant for your arrest if you do not pay your ticket. They’re going to take care of the streets during the Olympics, so right now I’m watching my P’s and Q’s. I don’t really get involved in police incidents. … If I see police…using too much force, whereas before I’d stand there and say like ‘you can’t do that’ or whatever, now it’s like I’m watching my P’s and Q’s because I don’t want any issuing of any tickets towards me. Because I think I’m, me and the Power to Women group, are very valuable to the DTES as far as actions, and getting the word out.”
“…They can issue a warrant for your arrest if you don’t pay your ticket, and the tickets aren’t cheap. And being somebody on a limited- on a welfare- income and who also has addictions or whatever, how are they going to pay that? So they’re going to resort to going to jail, and the jailtime will coincide with the Olympics.”
On the City’s policies to throw out people’s belongings:
“ … I was watching the news, and it really hurts to see the garbage dumps coming and taking the grocery carts…that’s their life- their belongings! And they take it in the garbage. What have they got left?… I said ‘how about if I strip your house and threw it in the garbage?’ and he just looked at me, the garbage man… There’s got to be an end to this. We got to stop the suffering. I’m all for it, you know. This is just–These police are just too much. It’s too much harassing and everything… I’ve seen a lot of it, I spent hours in the night, in the cold winter, in the snow, just to sit with the homeless- how it feels to be cold and hungry. And it’s very very painful. The blankets and whatever they own to keep warm- the garbage truck comes and takes them. That’s really cruel.”
On homelessness and political campaigns:
“…the Mayor’s campaigns that he’s been addressing are the ones that considered us more urgent, about gangsters on the street shooting each other up, about the Olympic venues, and about actual homelessness, like sleeping on the streets. But we have not addressed housing for everybody, and everybody, well everybody of a lower income, is having this problem with housing…Why can’t people such as my children, because although they work hard, they are not earning enough to qualify for a mortgage. True, you may have a fulltime job, you work hard, but you’re not earning enough to get a mortgage. Are you better off than getting a mortgage? No, because you’re a victim of not enough rental housing for the ones who are low income earners, in particular, but also middle income.”
Between 2003 and 2006, 99 new single social housing units were created while 415 disapeared. Between 2005 and 2006, 82 were created while 400 disapeared.
On why it’s happening:
“…Off and on there is some violence, but we also have to realize that down here, there is a lot of mental illness, alcohol, drug addictions, poverty, homelessness. It’s all in one basket, and everybody’s raised a different way… A lot of the problems down here that I see are to do with money, because of people being so addicted to whatever their drug of choice is…why a lot of people are homeless too is because they don’t want to live in the SROs. There are so many cockroaches, and bed bugs, and rats, and you know moldy…”
“Why do you think they’re doing this happy ticketing of only the Downtown Eastside? To intimidate the street, to intimidate us to get out of sight for the Olympics.”
“ …just to go hide them. Put everything under the rug but the problems are still going to be there after the Olympics, and there still won’t be enough housing.”
“ But if they keep this harassment up enough, I suppose that the feeling is that downtown Eastsiders should have enough sense to go and hangout somewhere else so that they won’t be too much of an embarrassment.”
On how it’s not just a DTES issue:
“ …if I talk on coop radio, … there’ll be a message on my voicemail… and they’ll say ‘Thank God for talking up for people who work for low wages’ because it’s not only the ones on the government cheque books that are affected…”
On what needs to be done:
“ I want to get housing starts. I don’t care about the recession, and I don’t care about the Olympics. We need housing starts. We’re behind. Of all the G8 countries, we lag farthest behind in many things, including housing the poor and low income earners.”
“ They want to clean up the streets so that it looks better, but they’re only going to shove all the inconveniences under the rug because there is no solution. No proper solution. The proper solution is having housing for everybody.”
References for facts:
BC Federation of Labour. (2008). “Still Waiting for Justice- 2009 update.” BC Federation of Labour. Vancouver. http://www.bcfed.com
Power to Women. (2009). “Information about the DTES.” Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre.