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Women in DTES experiencing 'horrendous' levels of violence

Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is shown in this undated file image. (CTV) Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is shown in this undated file image. (CTV)

Every morning, a woman living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside goes through the same routine.

She walks up and down Hastings Street, checking in on unhoused women. She brings them food, listens to their needs, and reminds them to stay together.

Over the last few months, the 57-year-old says she has heard growing concerns about safety and increased levels of violence directed at community members.

“The sexual assaults are horrendous,” said the woman, who has asked CTV News to identify her as GG for privacy reasons.

GG has lived in the Downtown Eastside on and off since she was four years old and says she’s lost many friends to gender-based violence.

“I’m numb now on celebrations of life.”

A recent survey conducted by Atira Women’s Resource Society analyzed the experiences of unhoused women living near Hastings and Main streets. Staff gathered 50 responses between November 2022 and January 2023. According to the results, 100 per cent of women indicated they do not feel safe and that they were subjected to violence, including sexual assaults.

Mebrat Beyene, the executive director at WISH Drop-In Centre Society, a non-profit organization that supports sex workers, said there’s an appalling lack of data on women who live in the Downtown Eastside. She said the survey validated what her team and other women’s groups have been hearing anecdotally.

“The thing that all of the women's organizations are saying, and that we know to be the case, is that anytime we're talking about all of these issues, there's a disproportionately worse impact on women,” she said.

Beyene told CTV News it’s becoming more complicated and difficult to maintain safety for women and gender-diverse people.

“One hundred per cent of the folks that we see have experienced some form of sexualized violence or intimate partner violence,” she said. “It includes clients, potential clients, predatory men who come to neighborhoods on the Downtown Eastside—because they know they can get away with it.”


In 2020, women’s organizations raised alarm about a “pandemic” of gender-based violence. Beyene said not enough progress has been made since then.

“When I think about how many people are coming to our drop-in and our shelter who are technically housed, but it's so unsafe that they're spending more of their time at our drop-in or our shelter—that's appalling.”

In the Atira survey, 48 per cent of women responded “no” when asked if they would move if they were offered shelter, with 35 per cent of them citing safety reasons.

Many of the shelter options in the city are for men, according to Beyene, who highlighted that the all-gendered shelters are usually male-dominant, which she called inherently unsafe.

Kimberly Corbett, the program manager at Atira’s Vancouver outreach program—which includes overseeing the women’s health and safety program—said she doesn’t think women are often given priority placement when shelter spaces come available.

“I truly believe that in order to keep women safe, we have to give them somewhere to be safe,” she said.


At a Feb. 23 Vancouver Police Board meeting, Sgt. Astrid Bonter said the VPD would be starting a sexual response advisory committee with community partners. During the presentation, Bonter said the goal of the committee is to improve the experiences of sexual assault survivors within the health care system, the courts and police.

CTV News reached out to a number of the community partners listed in the VPD’s presentation, but was told they were not aware of the initiative or had not yet been contacted about the creation of the committee.

In a statement to CTV News, the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre said it has been in communication with various stakeholders, including the VPD, for months about rising violence for women in the DTES.

“Our sexual assault response team has been providing regular reports with devastating data and testimonies from survivors. We are looking forward to discussing the details of this plan with the VPD to make sure this is an appropriate and efficient plan,” the statement continued.

On Wednesday, the VPD supported efforts by the city to dismantle encampments on the DTES, which included throwing residents’ tents and belongings in the garbage.

GG and advocates say the move will only further harm some of the city’s most vulnerable people.

“Where in God’s green earth are they going to go?” GG asked.

Beyene and Corbett said they’d like to see the province create more women's-only shelter spaces, as well as additional mental health and wrap-around services.

“We all know that if you focus on the needs of the most marginalized, and those who are at the highest risk of exploitation, then that space is going to work for everybody,” Beyene said. Top Stories


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