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SisterSquare: A Popup Refuge for Women on the Downtown Eastside

Safe consumption, warmth, companionship under a white tent — 'I have never seen anything like this place — for women only.'

Moira Wyton 26 May

Moira Wyton is The Tyee’s health reporter. Follow her @moirawyton or reach her here. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

The threat of COVID-19 brought a sharp reduction in community services and shelter spaces in the Downtown Eastside.

But more and more people, particularly women, need assistance as the informal economy dwindles and spaces like libraries and local businesses no longer offer a temporary refuge.

So with shelters turning away more and more women and drop-in centres almost completely closed, the community got creative.

SisterSquare, a large resource tent for all women-identifying people, opened kitty corner to Oppenheimer Park on the corner of Jackson Avenue and Powell Street this month, offering a 24-hour-a-day place for women to warm up, have a meal and be connected to health, housing and employment supports.

“We are not broken. We don’t need to be fixed,” said Yvette Joe, a peer support worker in the space. “These women work hard. And they take care of each other. Women can use the washroom safely — which is huge. And showers are coming soon.

“We asked the universe for this place and the universe gave us this.”

There is also an overdose prevention site in the large tent, an offshoot of the women-oriented SisterSpace site already operating at about half of normal capacity due to physical distancing measures.

Women can get help testing their drugs for fentanyl, and have a warm, dry space to use without feeling the need to rush in order to avoid harassment or violence.

“When you are homeless, you tend to feel more comfortable outside which I like about this place. You have to feel comfortable when you are using,” said Nicole, who uses the services at SisterSquare.

“I have never seen anything like this place — for women only.”

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Patricia Monty is a peer support worker at SisterSquare, which offers supports, safe consumption, washrooms and companionship. Photo by Joshua Berson.

Janice Abbott, executive director of Atira Women’s Resource Society, said “the tent is a result of the recognition that we needed more space so that more women could use [substances] safely or could be in a safe spot.”

“It just provides expanded space for women to gather in a way that’s safe and respectful of each other and respectful of everyone’s health.”

Peer support workers whose hours were reduced at SisterSpace now work to prevent overdoses at SisterSquare, and more have been hired to run the many services offered in the tent.

“I don’t use anymore and I know that people deserve the right to use and not to die,” said Patricia Monty, a peer support worker at the tent.

The project was made possible by a $100,000 grant from Central City Foundation and organizers hope it can continue through the summer and fall as risks of the pandemic change.

Jennifer Johnstone, CEO of Central City Foundation, says an important aspect of the project is that it was based on the needs identified by community members.

“Programs and services that have a lasting impact are those that emerge from community,” said Johnstone. “COVID-19 has really illustrated that.”

Abbott says it’s important to have a women-only space, even though people of all genders and backgrounds are in need of support, because women are at greater risk of violence.

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Janice Abbott of Atira Women’s Resource Society says SisterSquare 'provides expanded space for women to gather in a way that’s safe and respectful of each other and respectful of everyone’s health.' Photo by Joshua Berson.

A number of women have reported to Abbott that a man has been driving around in the early morning hours, stopping to approach sleeping women and trying to coerce them into his van.

Many women also feel unsafe using portable toilets and hand-washing stations installed by the city, fearing violence and intimidation. Many try to have a friend keep watch and guard their things.

Women are also more likely to be in caretaker roles during the crisis and SisterSquare provides space to decompress among others who understand.

“Every woman is different,” said Abbott. “Some come in and clean up, they use the bathroom, some women are coming ready to use with each other or use with someone who will witness or watch out for their safety.” A shower trailer is on order, but due to demand it will likely not arrive for at least a couple of weeks.

Even as B.C. begins to reopen, SisterSquare is still finding a delicate balance between preventing potential spread in the tent and making it a comforting space to build supportive relationships.

Women are not screened for COVID-19 before entering, but Abbott said if a woman displays symptoms she would be supported to get tested and isolate from others.

“Because of how women are socialized, we tend to be more relational. Even at SisterSpace women stay longer,” said Abbott. “But relationships are more paramount working with women so we do have women who hang around and visit with each other and visit with the peer staff, and other women just come into the bathroom and grab a snack.”

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From bathrooms to safe consumption to simply spending the night, SisterSquare offers a safe space for women. Photo by Joshua Berson.

The space is busiest at night, but every night looks different depending on what each woman needs.

“SisterSquare will always and forever be a work in progress, we will listen to the women who are there,” said Abbott.

While it remains unclear which poverty reduction and substance use policies will be permanently altered by the pandemic, Johnstone hopes governments will be encouraged to support solutions proposed by community members themselves in the future.

“We’ve been on the ground in this community since 1910. What we’ve learned in that 110 years is we need persistence, time and resources to make that change,” said Johnstone. “I am seeking that silver lining in this pandemic.”

The space gives Nicole hope that things will get better now that the pandemic has brought even more attention to challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness and those who use substances.

“We have lost so many people. I can now see that they didn’t die in vain. It’s been a total roller-coaster,” said Nicole.  [Tyee]

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