Friday, January 25, 2008

Was the Governor General Duped at the Downtown Eastside Women's Center?

On Thursday, the Vancouver Sun ran an article about Governor General Michaelle Jean's meeting with Bernie Williams and other women at the Downtown Eastside Women's Center to discuss homelessness. The lead in the article was: “In the bitter cold one night this week, Bernie Williams took photographs of 59 homeless people she found sleeping along three blocks of Hastings Street.”

Is Bernie Williams a mathemagician?

I’ve lived in the Downtown Eastside for 20 years and I’ve never spotted 59 people sleeping on the street at night in the entire neighbourhood, let alone on a mere three blocks of Hastings.

But don’t take my word for it. Walk along Hastings yourself some night; see if you come across 59 homeless people sleeping.

When I asked other Downtown Eastside residents about the 59 sleeping homeless people Williams claims to have photographed, two showed their skepticism with similar comments: “Where are the photographs?”, “Let’s see the photographs.”

One skeptic, a 35 year resident of the Downtown Eastside, said that if you walk along Hastings as far as First United church at Gore, you will see homeless people sleeping on the steps. Or if you go to the Main St. side of the old bank at Main & Hastings, there are three or four people who sit there drinking during the day, and sleep there at night. But he said that the maximum number of homeless people you would come across walking along Hastings – and he’s counting those mentioned above – would be ten.

But even the people who usually sleep on the steps of First United would possibly not have been there on the "bitter cold" night on which Williams was supposedly out photographing the homeless. On extremely cold nights, Downtown Eastside povertarians create extra spaces indoors for people to sleep. At Carnegie Center, I saw several "Extreme Weather Alert" notices last week, advertising a list of places people could go to get out of the cold. A man who occasionally goes to the Evelyn Saller Center -- a place where the poor can go to shower, get laundry done, or eat a subsidized meal --told me that they had turned their large recreation room into an over-night shelter during the cold weather, allowing people to sleep on the floor. And you can bet street workers roaming the neighborhood are directing homeless people on the street to these and other emergency shelters.

Another thing: if you think you can photograph 59 people on Hastings St. without getting people pissed off, maybe even getting your camera grabbed, good luck. Nancy Graves, a
street worker assigned the task of walking around and approaching homeless people to get them expedited welfare and housing, has told the media that she uses cigarettes to break the tension when she approaches homeless people. She holds out a cigarette as an offering, as she finds
they can be suspicious and hostile.

Before Williams claimed to have photographed 59 homeless people sleeping on Hastings St., she had earned a reputation for seeing more homeless people on the Downtown Eastside than Downtown Eastside residents are seeing. Last year, I picked up the Metro News and saw an article on the front page in which Bernie [Bernice] Williams claimed she had driven around the Downtown Eastside and in two hours counted 70 homeless women sleeping out. At the time, Williams was making a case for governments to give the DTES Women’s Center funding to allow women to sleep there over night.

How come I have never seen these 70 sleeping women? I do occasionally see a woman sleeping in a doorway. I recall on two or three occasions, over the past 12 months or so, seeing a woman sleeping with a man in a doorway. I have also on two occasions seen a woman sleeping alone in a doorway, although the one I saw on Main St. near Chinatown appeared to be passed out on drugs. At least some of the people I’ve noticed hidden under blankets in doorways could be women too. But if there were 70 women sleeping outside, I would notice. How could you not notice?

I told other Downtown Eastsiders, including a woman who frequents the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center (she can’t be named as there can be retaliation on the DTES against people who contradict the script used by povertarians for the media or government funders), about Williams’ numbers. Not one person I spoke to, felt these numbers were anywhere close to accurate.

One person I spoke to was Kevin, a homeless man who sleeps in the Terminal and Main area and often sits in front of the McDonald’s restaurant near that intersection. He also goes to Carnegie Center at Main & Hastings, just a few blocks from the DTES Women's Center. Kevin has been homeless on and off for years and, at the time I spoke to him last year, he had been homeless for 6 months. When I asked Kevin about Williams’ claim of seeing 70 homeless women sleeping on the streets, he smiled a little and said, “That’s a stretch.”

He said he does notice more homeless women now than he saw ten years ago, but it’s still "not common" for him to see one. He has not come across anywhere near 70 homeless women sleeping outside. He pointed out that when women are homeless, it is not easy to spot them by driving around. “They tend to sleep in out of the way places where they won’t be seen.” When I told Kevin that Williams was lobbying for money for the homeless, he no longer wanted to contradict her or comment on her statistics.

Kevin believes that if inflated statistics are a means to the end of attracting more government money for the homeless, “Then that’s a good lie.”