‘Breaking the cycle’: New Downtown Eastside building will help women stop using drugs, keep their children

Minnie V. Muir

A new Union Gospel Mission building in the Downtown Eastside will offer 165 beds to women and children, a daycare, and a 24/7 drop-in space for women needing respite.

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After giving birth to her son, Katrina Fleming was determined to kick a long-term addiction to drugs and become a good mother — but was terrified she’d have to leave the hospital without finding the supportive housing she desperately needed to reach her goals.

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That was nearly two years ago. It was as difficult then, and still is, to find specialized housing to help vulnerable women stabilize their lives and keep their children. After many phone calls, she was offered a spot in Union Gospel Mission’s Sanctuary program, a small program that provides temporary homes for women who want to begin recovering from their addictions.

“I was finally in a place where I could be stable and not have to worry. My housing was there. I was on the right medication to get to where I needed to be. I had people around me who could help me if I was having issues. And I just didn’t have to stress about homelessness and addiction anymore. So I was able to just keep stabilizing,” Fleming said.

“Breaking the cycle, being able to get out of being stuck in addiction and carrying that onto my child, I think that’s the most important thing. Now that he’s able to grow up in an environment where he’s not going to be around that because I’ll be clean, and I’ll be doing the best that I can.”

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Today, Fleming, 29, works for UGM, plans to complete her Grade 12 diploma by enrolling in courses this September, and continues to be a mother to little Payton, who is one year and 10 months old. They now live in supported housing in the Downtown Eastside for women and children, but it is in a harm reduction building — meaning some residents are still using drugs, which Fleming says isn’t ideal for women like her who are trying to stay clean.

Katrina Fleming.
Katrina Fleming. Photo by Union Gospel Mission

She hopes to move later this fall into UGM’s Women and Families Centre in the Downtown Eastside. Still under construction, it will have 135 beds in 63 housing units.

This includes 36 long-term suites — two-thirds of them with two or three bedrooms to accommodate moms and their kids — all rented out at the provincial government’s low income assistance shelter rates.

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It will also have 27 sanctuary rooms — nine of them earmarked for mothers with babies — where women would begin their recovery before moving into the suites. This will triple the number of stabilization rooms that UGM currently has.

The seven-storey centre, scheduled to open later this fall, will also have a daycare for 28 infants, toddlers and preschoolers on the top floor, as well as an outdoor playground with wooden playhouses and panoramic views.

The new building will offer a refuge for women fleeing abuse, addiction recovery programs, counselling, life skills and career-development classes, and after-school programs for elementary students and youth development programs for teens.

“I think the greatest thing is that there’s going to be so many different services provided under one roof, so you don’t have to stress about getting all over the place to figure everything out,” Fleming said.

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“There’s somebody right there who can help you take those steps and then point you in the right direction to where you need to go, so you’re not doing it alone.”

Candice Harper, UGM’s women and families outreach manager, in the new UGM building.
Candice Harper, UGM’s women and families outreach manager, in the new UGM building. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO/PNG

This week, Candice Harper, UGM’s women and families outreach manager, gave Postmedia a peek inside the new building, which is nearing completion but still requires finishing touches such as flooring, paint and furniture. It was designed based on what women in the community said they needed.

“What we really heard from women over the last decade is: ‘Where can I live that’s affordable? Where can I live where people won’t be dealing drugs? Where can I live where my children will be safe? How can I get my children back if I don’t have safe and affordable housing?’” Harper said.

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She is excited about a large ground-floor room that can fit up to 60 people and serve as a 24/7 drop-in for any women in the Downtown Eastside. One end can also be partitioned off to become a chapel or an intimate dining area where women can host large family gatherings. It will be welcoming to all cultures and can be used for art therapy, speakers or quiet moments of reflection.

“This is an incredible opportunity for women to have their own space without shame or without knowing they have to be rushed out,” Harper said. “That’s a first in my 16 years here at Union Gospel Mission that women and children will be able to have a 24/7 space.”

UGM raised just over half the money for the $34 million building from its donors. The federal government provided $11.4 million, and the province and city smaller amounts. UGM aims to cover the $5.6 million annual operating costs through its fundraising.

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This is the first time UGM will offer child care to its residents, which Harper said is crucial to promote equity for women, who will have better opportunities to recover and meet their education or career goals if there is a safe place to leave their kids each day.

“The children will be able to play outside, paint outside, learn to ride little tricycles,” Harper said.

“And that will allow for women to have freedom. And that’s freedom to choose, freedom to finish their schooling, work on mental health, and also be able to feel safe enough to parent. They don’t always have to be in survival mode. Because when you’re a woman, you are often given the only choice to just live in survival mode, live in poverty with your children, and just hope it gets better.”

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UGM’s Candice Harper shows off the wooden play structures outside the daycare.
UGM’s Candice Harper shows off the wooden play structures outside the daycare. Photo by Lori Culbert /PNG

The daycare will also have programs to assist with childhood development and assess whether kids are keeping up with their peers.

By providing child care, food, housing, and other opportunities to these mothers, UGM hopes they can eventually thrive independently and overcome the obstacles caused by oppression, racism and poverty.

First Call’s B.C. Child Poverty Report Card has found that 80 per cent of children living in the Downtown Eastside don’t have enough money for food or basic necessities, and that half of the families in the area — most headed by single parents — live below the poverty line.

“For the last 16 years, I see that poverty removes options, and especially those from women and children,” said Harper, adding the new centre will “offer a safe place for women and children to work on their own goals, to be able to see their life as they want their life to be.”

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UGM’s abstinence-based model, though, will not work for vulnerable woman in the Downtown Eastside who are unable to quit their addictions. Other housing, such as that run by Atira Women’s Resources Society and PHS Community Services Society, includes harm-reduction options and support services for women with drug dependencies, in an effort to stabilize their lives and those of their children.

The near completion of the UGM building is great news, but far more supported housing of all types is needed for women in the Downtown Eastside, said Mebrat Beyene, executive director of the WISH Drop-In Centre Society, which last fall opened Canada’s first 24/7 shelter for sex workers.

“What we keep seeing is just not enough — like insufficient amounts of and kinds of — housing that is catered to, tailored to women and gender-diverse folks. And in particular, really safe options. And having enough safe options,” Beyene said.

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“We know that women make up about 47 per cent of the population in the Downtown Eastside … and there still isn’t the same ratio of spaces, beds and housing (for women compared to men) throughout the neighbourhood. So we are looking for more.”

It was a difficult challenge for Fleming to find the housing she needed at the time she was ready for help, and she hopes the new development will make similar journeys easier for other women in the future.

Artist’s rendering of the competed building.
Artist’s rendering of the competed building. Photo by UGM

Raised in Saskatchewan by parents who struggled with addiction, Fleming was a stubborn teen who ran away from home to try to be independent. This led to foster care, addiction, homelessness, and bad relationships. While living in a SRO in the Downtown Eastside, she discovered she was pregnant and this gave her the inspiration to live a healthier, safer life so she could keep her baby.

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She applied to a specialized program at B.C. Women’s Hospital to help pregnant women transition from drug use, but it was full. She finally got accepted four days after giving birth which wasn’t ideal timing, but made her feel confident that her baby wouldn’t be taken away from her.

She then registered with B.C.’s Children and Families ministry, which helped her apply for supported housing. Several programs were full, but eventually she got into UGM’s Sanctuary. And now she hopes to move into one of the suites in UGM’s new building, where she dreams of providing her boy with a stable home.

Fleming says she is grateful for the help she’s received. And she’s grateful for her son.

“I’ve been so blessed from the beginning with Payton. Every morning when we wake up, the first thing I see is a smile on his face. He’s the sweetest boy ever. One of his favourite things is to climb on my lap and read books together. We’ve read every single book we own over and over,” Fleming, who loves to write, explains on UGM’s website.

“I’m just so happy because there are already so many things that are going to be different for him, compared to when I was a child.”

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