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Howe Sound Women's Centre Society hosts virtual International Women's Day fundraising auction

Organization sees an increase in intimate partner violence and sexual assaults as the pandemic wears on.

Typically, at this time of year, the Howe Sound Women's Centre Society would be prepping for its biggest fundraiser of the year, the Raising Our Voices event at the Maury Young Arts Centre in Whistler.

The evening is usually an annual showcase of novice and semi-professional singers and musicians, paired with a silent auction. 

With COVID-19 wearing on and preventing that critical fundraiser, the centre has pivoted to an International Women's Day auction online.

Last spring, due to the pandemic, the centre's Pearl's [Value and Vintage] fashion show was also cancelled, but that has meant more to auction off for this retooled online event, according to Ashley Oakes, executive director of the HSWC.

"We are taking those items that were donated... as well as the companies and businesses that support International Women's Day, so, for the first time, the Howe Sound Women's Centre is launching an online auction." 

The auction opens on March 8 and runs until March 21. 

There will be posters going up around town with a QR code locals can scan to go directly to the auction site. 

The current window display at Pearl's celebrating International Women's Day includes several of the auction items.

"The window is showcasing items from women-owned or operated businesses in the corridor," said Oakes.

A selfie-wall to celebrate International Women's Day will also be up at Pearl's, and include the auction QR code. 

And the auction will be accessible from the Howe Sound Women's Centre site.

Oakes said the centre's administration is aware that the public has also been asked to help out with the capital campaign for the renovation to the Squamish Howe Sound Women's Centre building, which is underway, and they are grateful for the corridor's support. 

"We have asked a lot of the community this year, and we are really aware that we have done that. But, the community has been so supportive, and we are so appreciative." 

In the fall, an anonymous donor contributed funds for a fundraising staff position at the centre that will be in place for three years. 

"We were able to bring a staff position on to help us take fundraising off the sides of our desks and really becoming more thoughtful and intentional in our fundraising efforts," she said.

The need is great

The pandemic has not been kind to many women in town. 

The three most significant issues women in the corridor face are increased rates of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and an increasingly out-of-reach cost of living.

In terms of sexual assaults, Oakes said this isn't a brand new concern in the corridor.

"We know that sexual assault rates are high, and we anticipated that the pandemic would amplify the rates of domestic violence, and we [are] absolutely seeing that now," she said. 

The centre is at capacity with its emergency housing options. 

"Throughout the last eight months, our transition house has been full. We have had overflow accommodations in hotels where we have frequently had to add additional rooms to that. And then finding the next step for folks is also hard because of the affordability [issue] and the lack of appropriate housing."

As has been the case for quite some time in town, the housing crisis compounds the need. 

"The cost of living for a single mother is really out of reach. There's not a lot of affordable housing and even the housing that is affordable, the waitlists to access them is quite long. Not only are we seeing that with our clients, but we are losing staff as well who aren't able to stay in the community because they can't afford the cost of a two-bedroom rental."

There for you

Oakes says while the need has increased, there is plenty of help available.

If you are facing intimate partner violence, the first step is to connect with the centre's crisis support team either through the drop-in space or through the 24-hour crisis line.

"We've been able to accommodate the additional need, through hotel accommodations and through partners in the area that also have transitional housing, whether that is on the North Shore or through our safe home in Pemberton... We are doing everything we can to make sure that everybody who needs a safe space has one."

Oakes stressed that partners of HSWC — such as BC Housing and the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation — help ensure the needs of locals are always met.

OPS is good news

Oakes said the new downtown Squamish Overdose Prevention Site has a positive impact on local women. 

"The addition of another safe space is so vital.... With the Under One Roof space and then the addition of the OPS as a safe space for people to be — whether that is another place to get a referral for services or a safe place to just spend some time out of the elements — we, at the Howe Sound Women Centre are supportive all these harm reduction models as a way of destigmatizing the experiences substance users may be having." 

In the former Helping Hands Society shelter, she added, the OPS space, feels both clinical — so safe — but also inviting. 

Beyond gender

Oakes said that a positive development of late is the gains made combating all gender-based violence. 

The theme of International Women's Day this year is #choosetochallenge, she noted.

"I think as a community we are doing a better job at 'choosing to challenge' the idea [of] the gender binary," she said.  

Pearl's for example, has stopped organizing the children's area by gender. 

"That was a great symbolic step for us," she said, noting that staff at the thrift store had long wanted to make the change.

HSWC has recently hired a gender-inclusion outreach worker.

The next year's plan is to ensure that those who are trans, non-binary, two-spirited, or other diversely-gendered know that the Howe Sound Women's Centre is a place for them to seek safety and support, as well, Oakes said. 

New and improved space

Temporarily, the Squamish Howe Sound Women's Centre staff are operating out of 37749 Second Avenue (Phone 604-892-5748) from Monday to Thursday while their usual Third Avenue location is under renovation. 

"We are really excited about the renovation which is going to allow us to move offices that have been administrative spaces, that were on the main floor, onto the second floor, which will allow us to add children's counselling and crisis support space." 

This will allow the centre to help more people under its roof at the same time. 

The goal is to reopen at the usual location downtown in August or September.