International Women’s Day marked in Vancouver by celebrating improvements to safe access to health and wellness for women in the inner city

(March 8, 2013 – Vancouver) A unique collaboration of organizations in Vancouver’s inner city marked International Women’s Day today by celebrating exciting improvements in access to safe spaces and resources for women in a centre for women’s health and well being in the Downtown Eastside.

In subsidized space provided by Central City Foundation at 29 West Hastings Street, the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective (VWHC), BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre and Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS) are offering collaborative programs that are contributing to measurable improvements in health and well being for inner city women.

“Central City Foundation bought and renovated the Cosmopolitan Hotel on Hastings in recent years for use as social housing, and we wanted to use the main-floor retail space of that building to support social innovation, invest in our community and spark relationships that can address women’s unmet health care needs in the Downtown Eastside,” said Jennifer Johnstone, President and CEO of Central City Foundation.

The collaboration between these organizations at the Cosmopolitan Hotel space continues the strong tradition of women’s groups working to address systemic and institutional challenges in the Downtown Eastside. Programs offered at the centre include access to nurse practitioners, a health information resource centre, and wellness services like yoga and art therapy. In addition, the centre is home to BWSS’s pilot Women’s Safety and Outreach Program, which offers immediate crisis support for women and girls in the Downtown Eastside who experience abuse or assault.

“Nearly half of the 18,000 residents in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are women, and the rates of physical and sexual violence against them are reported to be double that of other areas in Vancouver,” said Johnstone.

The centre is operated by VWHC and is open for 100 hours a month and serves an average of 1,000 clients every month. Twenty per cent of women using the centre access health treatment offered by BC Women’s Hospital. Of the women receiving care from the three nurse practitioners at the centre each year, it is estimated that 90% are living in violence with a significant amount of trauma, 60% are homeless or have unstable housing, 60% are challenged with addictions, 50% live with mental illness, 25% have complex chronic diseases and 20% suffer with chronic pain.

“Enormous challenges are faced by many women due to poverty, violence and, stigma, and subsequent stress, mental illness or substance misuse,” says Cheryl Davies, Vice-President Ambulatory Programs at BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre. “Providing safe, confidential, supportive and individualized health care in this women-centered space is one way to support women in overcoming these challenges.”

The VWHC also offer yoga, art therapy, tutoring and specialized seminars, all at no cost. There are computers for use, as well as a large health resource library. VWHC hands out essential toiletries, hygiene products, baked goods, tea and coffee.

“We provides a low-barrier, safe and supportive women’s only environment,” says Anita Smith, Executive Director of Vancouver Women’s Health Collective. “All women are accepted, heard and validated daily while accessing multiple programs on site. ‘Women helping women help themselves’ is the true essence of who we are and why we exist.”

The newest service for vulnerable women is a pilot program being offered by Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS) who have run a drop-in support group for women in partnership with the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre for many years. From 5 pm to 1 am, BWSS operates a mobile response unit out of the new women’s health centre, which travels through the Downtown Eastside to provide crisis support to women experiencing violence. In its brief first three months, BWSS Women’s Safety and Outreach contacted 220 women and provided support, advocacy and accompaniment to 56 women who experienced assault and six women who experienced sexual assault.

“Last year alone we answered over 10,000 calls from women needing help from our organization,” said Angela Marie MacDougall, Executive Director of Battered Women’s Support Services. “With this pilot program, when a woman or girl in the Downtown Eastside calls us in the evenings, we will come to them. Now we have a place from which to operate in the evenings and trained support workers can respond to women who are experiencing partner abuse, sexual and physical assault and emotional abuse.”

This year’s United Nations theme for International Women’s Day, celebrated annually on March 8th, is A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women. It is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.