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Downtown Eastside: A haunting ground for many, a hunting ground for one

From Monday's Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER — On a cold Sunday morning with snow in the air, the back-alley entrances where Robert Pickton used to pick up his victims in the Downtown Eastside weren't being staked out by hookers as usual.

But Harsha Walia, a project co-ordinator with the Downtown Eastside Women Centre, knows that the women who work the low track are still on the streets, living dangerous lives that Mr. Pickton's conviction yesterday won't change.

“I mean it's important that Pickton is no longer on the streets, but the streets are not safe,” said Ms. Walia, who helps run a drop-in centre visited daily by 300 women in the Downtown Eastside.

“I guess my reaction to his conviction is that it is justice for the families and their murdered daughters and sisters and granddaughters. But I think it's also important to highlight the need to not treat the issue of murdered and missing women as simply an issue of serial killers.

“You have to look at the systemic issues in the Downtown Eastside that create vulnerability for women – and which in fact have gotten worse in the past decade, not gotten better.”

Ms. Walia says while Mr. Pickton's incarceration removed one specific threat from the streets, the bigger picture remains bleak because women who work and live in the Downtown Eastside are still getting raped, robbed, beaten and murdered.

They are easy victims of violence, she said, because their poverty has forced them to either live or work on the streets.

Mr. Pickton targeted vulnerable women like that, and Ms. Walia says it is distressing that there are more of them now than when he cruised the neighbourhood.

“At least in the past few years there is increasing poverty in the Downtown Eastside. GVRD [Greater Vancouver Regional District] statistics themselves show that homelessness amongst women has increased 60 per cent,” she said.

“Sixteen thousand women have been kicked off social assistance [in British Columbia] since 2002. It's a huge number … [and] so many of them end up in the Eastside.”

Ms. Walia says the answer to making the streets safer for women lies in addressing the root causes.

She notes, for example, that under provincial regulations a single mother who has been getting social assistance will lose that support once her child turns three.

“That's why a lot of single moms who can't find work and can't afford child care, end up turning tricks on the street.

“It's good Pickton has been convicted, but all of these things – housing, poverty, child apprehension, social assistance regulations – all of those issues are making it just a lot more dangerous for women,” she said.

Bee, a native woman and long-time resident of the Downtown Eastside who has had several family members murdered, or go missing, over the years, has been attending rallies in the community during the Pickton trial to draw attention to the continuing issues of poverty and homelessness.

At a rally a few days ago, she said the victims of violence, whether they were Mr. Pickton's victims or someone else's, shouldn't be forgotten.

“It is important for everyone to honour and remember the lives of these women,” she said. “They were someone's mother, child, aunt, niece or daughter.”

Another woman at the rally, who gave her name only as Madeline A, said the streets of the Downtown Eastside “are incredibly dangerous,” for women, who can't afford safe places to live.

“Poverty is also a form of violence against women,” she said, arguing that women live and work on the streets out of desperation.

A few hours after the Pickton verdict came down yesterday, a young woman who wouldn't give her name, squatted on the sidewalk on East Hastings, near the intersection with Gore Avenue. On nearby street corners and alley entrances, Mr. Pickton used to stop to pick up women like this, luring them with promises of drugs and money.

The woman looked glassy-eyed and when she was asked what she thought of the Pickton verdict, she nodded her head loosely and answered: “Crack?”

For $20 she would have gotten in a car and driven away with anyone.

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