"I could have died that night but I didn't. Will the next girl be as lucky as me?"
A project to help protect the safety of street-involved women has stalled thanks to some tardy councillors.
In a report earlier this month, staff recommended establishing up to two 24-hour drop-in facilities that would offer low-barrier, round-the-clock safe spaces for all women and would be the first of their kind in Toronto. But the plan to create them has been delayed because some councillors failed to return to a committee meeting.
The Community Development and Recreation Committee spent Thursday morning debating establishing the drop-in spaces. Doing so would fill a crucial gap in the services the city provides to Toronto’s most vulnerable women, who currently have few options if they need respite from the hazards of the street.
Despite a council vote last April to improve conditions in homeless shelters, the city’s 575 permanent women’s beds are effectively full and women still report being turned away. Some, particularly sex workers and those addicted to drugs, opt out of looking for beds because they feel stigmatized and unwelcome in the shelter system. Many end up sleeping on the street or in other unsafe situations.
More than a dozen women spoke at the meeting and urged the committee not only approve the proposal but also to expedite it. Some of the speakers were service providers, some used to live on the street, but most told harrowing stories that illustrated the dangers street-involved women face every day. They asked the city to take immediate action.
In response, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam moved a motion to push for a new facility by December instead of sometime in 2015 as proposed in the report. It looked like the committee would easily approve it and send it on to council for a final vote.
But then something stupid happened. Instead of immediate action, there was needless delay. With the committee set to vote, councillors broke for lunch. An hour later the meeting reconvened, but Councillors Josh Matlow and Maria Augimeri failed to return on time and the six-member committee didn’t have enough members to reach quorum. They were forced to adjourn without a decision on the drop-in proposal.
Afterwards, Augimeri’s assistant said the councillor, who is chair of the TTC, was late because of a meeting with commission staff. Matlow simply told NOW his lateness was “unacceptable.”
Committee chair Councillor Anthony Perruzza said he would try to reschedule the meeting to finish the agenda sometime soon. No date is set.
Street-involved women and those who work with them are now left waiting for City Hall to get its act together. Here, in their own words, are some reasons why they shouldn’t have to:
“Many of us have felt afraid working the streets at night. We have nowhere to go. And when we are assaulted on the job we feel we can’t report it to the police for fear of being arrested. I was assaulted twice on the job, the first time at gunpoint. Women like me need someone to talk to who won’t judge us.”
– Former sex worker Tina Haynes, who has since applied to become a peer worker at St. Stephen’s Community House
“We don’t have anything out there for anybody to go to right now. We’ve just had a couple more rapes on the corner where I live. And I watched three women get beat up last night, actually off my balcony … We need some place for them to go right now.”
– Norma Neal, Regent Park Community Health Centre
“One of the women from the drop-in wanted to share her story with you today but was unable to join us … She was sexually assaulted and strangled over several hours one night by two men after being turned away from a shelter … She said to me … ‘I could have died that night but I didn’t. Will the next girl be as lucky as me? I think that answer really depends on whether or not our 24-hour space is made a reality.'”
– Jolene Heida, Social Worker with the PROS program
“I have often called to get a [violence against women shelter bed] for a woman fleeing abuse, only to be told that there are none. She’s lucky if we find a bed at a shelter that’s not equipped to deal with the specific issues of a woman fleeing violence. And if we don’t, more often than not she will leave my office to sleep another night on the street unsure if her abuser will find her. A 24-hour safe place would help.”
– Cara Heitmann, Women’s Safety Committee for Downtown East Side
“I remember being homeless at one point in my life, walking around at night. After five o’clock there’s nowhere to go if you don’t have any money. And I found I was walking around the block several times trying to look – well, pretending I was important and trying to look like I had a place to go.”
– Sushi Rosborough, Street Health