Today, May 30, 2012 – Global BC issued an article on Homelessness in Vancouver: to read the article click here

BWSS would like to re-issue the following article, written about a year ago, which explores the gendered implications specifically for women dealing with homelessness.

Women, Violence, Homelessness and Housing

By Angela Marie MacDougall

Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS), as ending violence workers, frequently and regularly work with women facing homelessness. It is the worst form of urban poverty and social vulnerability. Women are one of the groups affected most dramatically by homelessness, in terms of both the challenges they face once homeless and the impacts of the dangers to them of being homeless. This is partly due to the invisibility of women in society and in marginalized groups, such as the homeless population. Even in recent reports on homelessness in Vancouver, women are blatantly invisible. In both the Metro Vancouver Homeless Count 2011 Preliminary Report and the City of Vancouver’s Housing and Homelessness Strategy 2012-2021: A Home for Everyone, women, violence against women, and women’s safety is not even mentioned let alone part of the statistics and strategy plan. The reports and plans regarding homelessness clearly contain no gender, violence against women analysis. They fail to address or even consider the particular causes, risks, and challenges faced by women in any manner. In our work on the front-line we have witnessed homelessness increase more among women than it did for men in 2008 and 2009.

Homelessness for women is closely linked to violence, both in cause and effect. Homeless women in Vancouver on a daily basis face sexual harassment and the threat of physical and sexual violence. This is due to: survival on the streets and in shelters favouring those with physical strength, women are more likely to be preyed upon then men, and women must navigate the threat of male violence not only on the streets but also in shelters, co-ed facilities, and social housing all of which often result in actual violence.

In Vancouver, like many urban settings, there is a lack of affordable and accessible housing. The social housing that does exist is provided on the assumption that the causes and effects for homelessness that men face are the same as women face. This is also true of shelters. Historically, the models shelters were built upon were for serving predominantly older adult males. What results is a model of shelters and housing that do not address the particular issues women face. In 2008 27% of the homeless population in Vancouver were women. What we see on the frontline is women who have been traumatized by past violence (which often results in isolation and fear) get re-traumatized and struggle in communal environments where their safety and privacy is comprised by the presence of large numbers of predominantly transient men. So having a shelter and housing model built upon a communal nature and that historically served older male adults, exacerbates the homelessness problem for women.

It is always difficult to access social housing for anyone and any group. However, it is all the more difficult for single women without children because they are unable to share rent with their partners and social housing provides priority to women with children. So where do single women with no children go? On the streets, in unsafe co-ed shelters, or remain in unsafe relationships. Although there is increased prioritization of access to social housing being accorded to women, these new spots fill up as soon as they are available because of years of existing backlogs. Homelessness has increased nearly three fold in the last 10 years, according to the City’s 2012-2021 housing strategy report cited above, and new housing supply has decreased in recent decades. Further in the City’s report, in the period of 2006-2010 the City deemed 2,000 units were needed, however only 510 were built. What we see in working with women at BWSS is that the City’s strategy plan for building new units and increased prioritization have had a negligible impact on the lack of housing for women.

In Vancouver, in 2011, there are 14 emergency shelters of which 11 accommodate women. Four are dedicated specifically for women with 146 beds in all. Two of those shelters are in the downtown eastside of Vancouver. In 2010-2011, it was estimated that roughly 35% of shelter users were women. Most shelters are co-ed, meaning they house both men and women in non-segregated spaces. Demand far exceeds supply for women-only shelters. One women’s shelter reported turning away eight to ten women per day at both of the shelters it operates. This is not exceptional among shelters in Vancouver and throughout British Columbia from what we see on the front-line. Many of the workers at BWSS are continually unable to get women into social housing. It is not possible to get social housing within a reasonable period of time, much less a period sufficient that prevents chronic homelessness, for every woman who wants it. Women with children will do almost anything to avoid sleeping on the streets out of fear of losing their children. Like, for instance, stay in an abusive relationship.

The lack of single-sex shelters for women is a serious systemic problem with grave consequences. We have not seen the demand and the critical need for gender segregation being met. Co-ed shelters have many shortcomings that do not address the needs of their tenants or women in particular. These shortcomings include:

  1. insensitivity of the impact of their service model on women (e.g. not starting from the position that women’s safety must be paramount);
  2. placing the onus on women to ensure safety as opposed to the organization which operates the shelter;
  3. insufficient monitoring of the space;
  4. lack of segregated space for women;
  5. lack of facilities geared toward women;
  6. lack of training for issues specific to women, including helping victims of violence;
  7. no programming geared toward women;
  8. presuming that the traditional service model geared toward men will fit women (e.g. ignoring violence as a significant cause of homelessness and that harassment and sexual violence is likely to be perpetuated within the shelter);
  9. lack of privacy;
  10. close proximity of men, despite many women being fearful or uncomfortable with the presence of large groups of transient men; and
  11. poor hygiene at the shelters.

Additionally, many shelters have insufficient accountability for residents’ actions because there are no identification procedures (e.g. fouling the shelter, harassment, theft, or other crimes, including sexual assault) and have insufficient policies regarding storage of personal property or medication. For these reasons and understandably, many women do not feel safe to stay in shelters.

What we hear from women is that they would feel safer if the men were not sharing shelter space with them because many have been victims of violence at the hands of men. In addition, there is little or no background information required of prospective staff at co-ed shelters: in one case, a co-ed shelter hired a male who had a criminal record of a sexual and harassing nature, having been caught masturbating in his car while following a woman on the sidewalk. In 2011, there have been 10 cases of sexual assaults at Vancouver shelter reported to Vancouver Police, a facility which at the time, provided roughly 3/4 of the spaces of all the shelters. Since then, numerous other anecdotal reports have surfaced.

So called “single room accommodations” also have several problems with staff, such as the lack of criminal background checks for staff, including those staff members who have access to women’s private rooms, such as janitors and front door staff. We at BWSS receive roughly 1 complaint each week from women staying in single room accommodations regarding women feeling unsafe because of staff, for reasons including sexual harassment and threats (implied or express). Generally, women still have a significant fear of physical harm in these locations.

So…what choices do women really have? Not many. And this is systemic failure done to women with grave and potentially fatal consequences. To read more on the need for safe shelters and housing for women, please check out the links below and let us know what you think.