PWN at 20: Location, Location, Location
In this, our twentieth year, we’re featuring a monthly blog series, PWN at 20, that looks at PWN’s unique place in Canada. Last month we examined women-centred care.
“Location, location, location” is a real estate term meaning where you are is what you’re worth. You can tear down a crummy house, but you can’t change the location of the land that it’s on. This mantra is certainly true for too-expensive Vancouver, but it’s also true in where you house an AIDS service organization.
Laying the Foundation
When Positive Women’s Network first started in 1991, it was a phone line and a support group at the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective. A couple of years later we were granted funding to deliver support programs and develop resources for those who were reluctant or unable to access info in person. Our first official offices were in a big building at 1107 Seymour Street. AIDS Vancouver and BC Persons with AIDS Society (now Positive Living BC) dominated the place, but we had two little offices. One squeezed in three part-time staff members, and the other was a drop-in space: a room with a two-seater sofa and two rattan chairs. Women would find us on the second floor, and we’d plug in the kettle for tea.
It was good to be in a shared space when so much was developing in HIV advocacy in BC. We were one of the founding members of the Pacific AIDS Network, a coalition of over 50 groups in BC, and we’re still heavily involved today. PWN’s Executive Director Marcie Summers leads the Board of Directors as chair. Over the years we watched smaller organizations get their starts in the building: YouthCO, Black AIDS Network, and Asian Society for the Intervention of AIDS (ASIA) all were housed at 1107 in their early days. Wings Housing Society also had an office there.
As the organizations in the building grew, so did the need for reworking the space to deliver programs. AIDS Vancouver, BCPWA and PWN entered a partnership to raise money to improve the building: 1107 Seymour was named the Pacific AIDS Resource Centre and the renovations began. We advocated for a women’s centre within the building, a space where women could be free to talk about what was going on with their HIV health and the life factors that influenced it. Many of our members had controlling partners and varying degrees of violence in their relationships. Control wasn’t always physical (although it often was), but could be a refusal to allow a woman to talk to us as long or as often as she’d like, or a refusal to allow her to speak of her HIV status to anyone but us.
Give Me Some Space: PWN’s Women’s Centre
Our request for a women-only area was initially met with resistance as space was at a premium in that building. It was finally agreed that we would have a Women’s Centre. We moved into it in January 1995, and everyone was thrilled. The focus of the drop-in was the big kitchen and lounge where women could have something to eat, relax and use a phone if needed. Tuesday lunches became regular part of support programming, and at first staff would make the lunch.
While we had a women-only space, women still had to go through the front of the building to get to us. The stigma of HIV carried over into relationships that already had elements of violence, and the combination could be brutal. More than once women asked us to accompany them out a back exit so they could get away from their partner who was pacing in the hall, having just threatened to beat her up. Staff also received threats for their role in helping women.
Situations like these led us to consider whether 1107 was a logical long-term home for us. It was good to connect with other organizations in our advocacy work for members, but was it right for the individuals seeking our services? Over the course of a year we considered the pros and cons of the building. It was a place where women could see us when they went to complementary services at other organizations or their partners did. We were easily identifiable in the building. But these facets worked against women as well.
Leaving Home of “The AIDS Building”
Women wanted to get away from their partners for a break, and they didn’t want to come into what was known as “the AIDS building.” The summer of 2000 saw us make the move to where we are now, in an office building just around the corner from St. Paul’s Hospital. We’re a few blocks from 1107, but miles away in terms of a women-safe space and anonymity. Members who hadn’t been to the Seymour Street space said they were so much happier to have a separate, anonymous building to enter. No one knows they’re going in for HIV support. We still have the kitchen and lounge area and provide lunches where women connect over food; that’s essential.
At various times we’ve been criticized by some at community organizations as being too “uptown.” They say that we should be in the heart of the Downtown Eastside (DTES). But our members disagree. The women that do go in and out of the DTES say they’re glad we’re not there, because when they’re trying to stay clean, they don’t want to be in the trigger zone. When they’re focussing on staying healthy, connecting with us helps. And even when they are using, they appreciate the break from the DTES and feel welcome at PWN. Women using our services come from many different life experiences and backgrounds, and the DTES isn’t a place where everyone would go for services.
So we are where we are. The location is easy to get to by transit, wheelchair accessible, and women friendly. We don’t allow men into the drop-in, so that women can feel they truly have a place to call their own. A homey space.