Safety for some, violence for the poor: Five reasons to support feminist action

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Photo: flickr/peter beens

Issues of violence against women have been getting a lot more attention in the news than usual in the past few weeks. Amidst these conversations, you sometimes hear reference to survivors as 'educated' or a 'public figure'. The media emphasis on the class standing of survivors implies that certain lives and stories of violence are more 'believable' (just barely) -- while others can be more easily dismissed. 

November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. For the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, it marks one year since the launch of its demand for a 24-hour women and trans drop-in. As emergency homeless shelters, especially women's shelters, continue to be at capacity and the city has consistently stalled opening new spaces, OCAP will be taking action on the 25 to fight for safer spaces, increased shelters and affordable, accessible housing. 

This demand for 24-hour women and trans drop-ins was launched last fall after a homeless woman, with nowhere else to go, slept on steps at Dundas and Sherbourne. She was assaulted by two different men in one night -- and those incidents were caught on camera. That assault, and the subsequent reaction by many (including police) dismissing the woman, and assumptions that she was 'trading sex for drugs' -- is, sadly, not shocking and all too common for women on the streets. 

A community-based study conducted in 2007 found that homeless women are ten times more likely to be sexually assaulted, according to the Women & Homelessness Research Bulletin. One in five homeless women (21 per cent) in the study had been sexually assaulted in the past year. More than one in three (37 per cent) had been physically assaulted.

Another study by Dr. Stephen Hwang at St. Michael's Hospital found the average life span for homeless women is approximately 37 years.

The terminology of 'safety' is often used as a justification for social cleansing of poor neighbourhoods. 'Safety' in that context is about protecting the privileged from those who are marginalized, never the other way around.

The Downtown East of Toronto has one of the highest concentrations of homeless and poor people in Canada. This once 'undesirable' location now faces the encroachment of condo developments and a 'Revitalization Project' to 'clean-up' the unsightly shelters, housing projects and 'rampant drug use'.

At a City meeting about the project, one home-owning resident cried about having to install a second pane of glass on his condo unit to keep out yelling from "hookers on the street." He said nothing about the ongoing violence that street-involved women experience. He said nothing about the assault at Dundas and Sherbourne, just a few short blocks away from his double-paned glass condo. 

On November 25 we are using the language of 'safe space' -- inverting the phrase to talk about the right to safer spaces for all women and trans people. As feminists and allies we need to stand behind and fight along side those whose lives and right to safety are being dismissed and are subject to daily systemic violence.

And as our anger grows, so too should our desire to take action and fight back.

Five reasons to support feminist action on November 25:

1. Justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women 

There are more than 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. This is the result of a legacy and ongoing patriarchal, colonial violence by the state. It is because of this legacy that Indigenous people are disproportionately represented in the homeless population.

The lack of safer spaces, drop-ins, culturally appropriate services, shelter and housing puts Indigenous women, trans and two spirit people who are homeless or street involved at further risk of violence. Indigenous women and community organizers are calling for an increase in access to housing, shelter, safer spaces and transit, as one part of re-defining what justice looks like for Indigenous women.

2. Support sex workers 

New sex work legislation shamefully became law November 6. These laws will reproduce many of the same risks and harms that were unanimously declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last year.

Criminalization of sex work forces those who are most precarious into further marginalization -- fear of being arrested, fear of having their kids taken away, fear of violence from clients. These laws will come down hard especially on street based sex workers who already face an incredible amount of violence from both society at large and the state.

3. Migrant justice 

One of the fastest growing populations of people on the streets are migrants and non-status people. Non-status people are barred from accessing most social services, denied opportunity to earn a decent income, and are expected to live literally on the margins of society while they fuel our economic system.

Non-status women are especially at risk of violence when they are unable to access services, report violence, or are reliant on sponsors. Under Harper we have seen a concerted racist attack on migrants and refugees. The brunt of this racist attack has and will be felt by migrant women.

4. Homeless and housing crisis 

We have experienced two decades of slashing and cutting on top of more recent austerity measures. Today we have a housing crisis across Ontario with skyrocketing levels of homelessness.

The supposed 'social justice' Ontario Liberal government recently cut and downloaded the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) -- a benefit to help people on social assistance leave situations of domestic violence, get out of an institution, or move for reasons of safety or health. The loss of CSUMB has been devastating -- there is no other benefit to help people obtain or maintain housing. The haphazard municipal replacements are grossly underfunded and people are consistently denied.

In Toronto, homeless shelters are full. The City has failed to keep their 90 per cent occupancy standard and open new space. Women's shelters have consistently been at or above 98 per cent with women being told on a nightly basis that there is no space. We now head into another extreme winter and while we managed to push the City to open warming centres during cold alerts, shelters remain full and there are few places for people to sleep. 

5. The War on Drugs is a War on Women 

In 2004, 30 per cent of women in federal prisons had been convicted of drug-related charges, compared to only 15 per cent of men. Women, specifically Indigenous women and women of colour, are targets of the Canadian style 'War on Drugs'.

Women who use drugs also face a higher level of daily stigma, are denied access to services and housing, and face the most interaction with social services as a result of their drug use. We have faced cuts to harm reduction programs and moralistic attacks on services for people who use drugs.

The Harper Conservatives recent introduction of mandatory minimums for drug related charges, will have a profoundly negative and deadly effect on the lives of women.

Liisa Schofield is an elected Organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and has been a member for over a decade. She is also a filmmaker, feminist, and baker. 

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