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Homeless women assaulted daily in downtown Toronto

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"A lot of people think that as a result of my case a lot of things have changed."

Jane Doe stood on the northeast corner of Dundas and Sherbourne on Monday and addressed a crowd of about 50 people at a press conference where community members released an Open Letter from over 19 women's organizations and community agencies to the City of Toronto demanding immediate action on violence against homeless women.

"In fact things are worse than they've ever been. Violent crime is down in this city except for rape, sexual assault and violent crimes against women. They continue to rise."

In 1986, Doe was the fifth woman sexually assaulted by a serial rapist. The police knew about the rapist but never issued a warning to women living in the community. The same community where Doe stood on Monday. 

She filed a civil lawsuit against the Metropolitan Toronto Police in 1987 and was awarded $220,000 eleven years later. Because of a publication ban on her identity, her real name cannot be used.

"As a result of my case, the police now say they issue more warnings," said Doe.

"They're telling women (to) keep their doors closed. Keep your windows closed. Don't go out. Don't take shortcuts. Imagine how they sound to women who are homeless. Who have no doors to close. To women who can't stay out of the parks at night because that's where they live and sleep."

Including sex trade workers and street-based women.

"Our politicians and police aren't listening to us," she said. "And the media could care less."

On Monday, numerous events were held across the country and around the world to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. 

"It's unfortunate because it's supposed to be the elimination of violence," said Norma Jean, a long-time Downtown East End resident and OCAP member.

"We still have an incredible amount of it. And yet this morning, there was nothing on the news about this day. Nothing said about the real problem going on in this city, across Canada and around the world."

Nothing about the changes needed to get at the root of the problem. 

"The gender inequality that is the reason that violence is continuing to happen towards women," said Norma Jean.

On September 22, a woman was sexually assaulted by two men in separate incidents while she slept in a well-lit area near Dundas and Sherbourne. The incidents were recorded on the video surveillance tape of a local agency and reported to police.

"Police posted photos on their website," said OCAP in their release for Monday's press conference.

"However they failed to hold a press conference or inform women and service providers in the community about this incident. Making the incident known to the public would assist in alerting women in the community about the risk, identifying the men to the public, and raising urgent awareness about the unsafe conditions that homeless women face. Such media and public responses were seen in the past in cases of assaults occurring near local universities and in parks.

"The lack of attention and care towards this case of sexual violence reflects the stigma and discrimination faced by many women in our community. This reminds us of past injustices where women were put at riskby similar inaction, such as the disappearance of women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

"This incident, and many others, shows the true nature of the crisis within the shelter system and lack of safe space and housing for women in the City of Toronto. Women from the community have been at the forefront of responding to this and demanding immediate action and accountability.”

Women would love to see some of the vacant properties in the community, some of which are owned by the City, converted to affordable housing or shelters. 

So women who are deemed to be "worth less than others" wouldn't have to face the daily threat of being assaulted.

"When we're talking about indigenous women or sex trade workers, those assaults are not considered assaults," said Deb Singh, a counsellor at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre.

"Those bodies are rapable. We're allowed to use violence against those women. They do certain things so it's acceptable."

For almost 30 years of her adult life, Judy has lived on the streets near Dundas and Sherbourne.

"And it is not a pleasant experience to be out here cold, hopping from sofa to sofa looking for a place to live," said Judy, now a peer outreach worker at Regent Park Community Health Centre.

"Women are being assaulted on these streets every night. I have lived through experiences like that. When I do my outreach, I hear people tell me this happened to me last night. That happened to me last night."

With women's shelters running at almost full capacity, these women have nowhere to turn. Often forcing them to perform sexual favours in return for a place to sleep.

"And it’s not something that I'm proud of but it’s something that I've had to do in my life," said Judy. "And I don't not want to see my friends continue to have to put up with it."

At the end of the day, Judy now has a home to go. But her friends don't. It took Judy almost three decades on a Toronto Community Housing waiting list before she finally landed a place of her own.

"No one should have to wait that long," she said. "The women on the street need to be housed."

Now.

"How many more women have to die out here before the City do something about it?" asked Judy. 

"They are probably waiting until they have to pick up one dead body every night before they do something. And then it's going to be too late."

A study conducted by Street Health and Sistering found 30 per cent of women living on the streets had been physically assaulted and 21 per cent had been sexually assaulted at least one time in the last year.

"Silence around this issue may put further women at risk," said Jessica who works at Street Health. "This has been seen in the past where women have gone missing."

Less than two weeks ago, another woman was raped in the neighbourhood.

"Why was she out there?" asked Brandi, who was formerly homeless and slept in doorways. Then she landed a job at Street Health. "The fact that I smoked crack and was an addict didn't matter."

And after an 11-year wait, a housing worker found her a permanent place to live.

"I smoke crack and manage to pay my rent and hang on to my job for 10 years," said Brandi. "I think I've done okay for someone who's a daily user. I go to jail now and then but I can deal with that."

In spite of it all, she's still happy to be alive.

Drina Joubert wasn't as fortunate. Twenty-eight years ago, she froze to death in a lane way nearby, looking for somewhere to sleep and be safe.

Today, homeless women are still searching for the same thing. A place to sleep and be safe.

"I don't think much has changed," said Sheryl Lindsay, Sistering and No More Silence. "And that's really a cause for us to gather here, to be angry, to raise our voices, to demand safe space now."

By providing more emergency shelter and affordable housing.

"This is an ongoing crisis," said Lindsay. "We're at a critical point right now."

In response, women are demanding that the City replace flex beds with real beds, open a new 50-bed women's shelter, ensure that the shelters are located in accessible spaces for women and trans folks and open 24 hour or after hour safe space in the downtown east and west ends. 

They also want the City to open shelters that are harm reduction, pet-friendly and address the overall loss of approximately 200 shelter beds from the system in the last 10 years.

Click here to see more photos from the press conference.

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