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In the winter of 2000, I was co-managing a 4 bedroom house in Walley, BC. My co-manager and I became friends, but eventually he wanted to have a relationship. When I refused, he started to become verbally abusive and controlling with me. I took the abuse for a while, until I started to get incredibly stressed. I decided to leave in the spring of 2001. In a state of extreme depression, I left with a couple of bags and took the bus into Vancouver, where I ended up homeless.
During the day I panhandled for food and smokes, and at night I stayed wherever I could find a quiet and safe spot on the streets such as in a park or in a doorway. I felt alone, scared, and lost in the cracks and in the crowd. I could not sleep at night because there was no privacy, only constant harassment – whether it was the police, private security, drunk people leaving the bars, violent men, or somebody trying to rob me. A few guys tried to get me to do sex-work on the street for them, but I refused.
While I was panhandling, people would always hassle me and yell at me to move away from their store. I would often get sworn at or told to get a job. I felt judged by the people walking by and I was so ashamed of myself. I wish I could have made them understand how hard it really was. It was overwhelmingly difficult just to survive and I would never want to be homeless again. There are approximately 11,000 homeless across BC, with 3000 people homeless across the Lower Mainland.
I had been on the street for a few months when someone told me to go to the Downtown Eastside to access support and services. I found a welfare worker who helped me get into the Bridge Shelter, where I stayed for one month, after which I got into Bridge Housing in June 2001.
I had to start all over again to establish my life. I found the Downtown Eastside Womens’ Centre. When I first walked in the doors, I did not want people to know me or know where I came from. But I met some friends who told me about the different activities available and I joined various programs and groups. Being a part of the DTES Power of Women Group showed me how to stand up for myself and others, which helped me regain my confidence and I began to feel good about myself again.
One of the issues I have continued to raise my voice against is that of police brutality in the Downtown Eastside. This is just one of the many stories that inspired me to take action.
I had been living in a supportive housing building for women for about nine years. As opposed to private SRO housing, one of the benefits of supportive housing run by non-profits is that it maintains the confidentiality of the tenants who live there. Unless it is an emergency or a tenant has called 911, the police can only enter with a warrant.
One day the police arrived at my building looking for a tenant. They did not have a warrant and no one had called 911. The building staff refused the police access into the tenant’s room. I was sitting in the lobby of our building and witnessed the whole incident. At first the female officer got agitated and was demanding that they be allowed into the tenant’s room. The staff did not give in, which just made the police officers angrier, stating that they had a right to go inside. I saw one officer go towards the staff member to grab her arm. I ran out to try to inform people about what was taking place and to get some help.
When I returned, the staff was in handcuffs and had been taken outside. I heard them saying that they had arrested her and would charge her with ‘obstruction of justice’. By that time a crowd had gathered and staff from next door at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre had also arrived. Eventually, the arrested staff member was let go.
This whole incident made me very angry. There are so many stories of police arrogance and violence, and most are worse than what happened to this staff member. In this situation they were not even following their own protocol. I was scared that if this could happen to a staff member what could happen to someone like me who has less authority in this neighbourhood? It made me feel very powerless and vulnerable, especially as the incident occurred in my own building.
I have lost faith in the police. I fear that if I ever needed them to help me, they would turn on me instead. They do little to protect against actual violence, like all the murdered and missing women. Instead, they are violent towards us, frequently arresting people for minor things like jaywalking, or harassing people who are just standing on the street. It deeply frustrates and angers me that we let the police use their power and badges in such negative ways, and that society allows them to power-trip and do what they want. I imagine a Downtown Eastside where we are free from the arbitrary beatings and the brutality of the Vancouver Police Department, and so I and others fight to make this possible.
Karen Lahey is proud to be a survivor. She has been living in the Downtown Eastside for the past 11 years. Because of the DTES Power of Women Group, she can now publically speak in front of a crowd and in front of cameras. She likes to help other women find their voice.
This story is part of the Downtown Eastside Power of Women “In Our Own Voices” writing project. For more information and to read more stories, please visit http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/author/dtes-power-women-group