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Downtown Eastside residents demand phones for safety

Residents in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are demanding emergency phones and better relations with city police. These issues were brought forward…

By Beth Hong , in City Feature story , on November 25, 2010 Tags: , , , , ,

Terri Williams stands at the site of an abduction she says she witnessed from her former residence

Residents in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are demanding emergency phones and better relations with city police.

These issues were brought forward at a pair of public meetings with Vancouver Police Department officials. The meetings were held on October 8 and November 12 as part of a police initiative to connect with people in the Downtown Eastside.

Former resident Terri Williams told the audience why access to phones is so important.

“There was no safe access to 911,” she said. She reported an abduction later that morning.

Williams said she saw a man abducting a woman at 2 a.m. from her window at her former residence on Powell Street in 2003.

Williams wasn’t able to report it to the police right away because she had no phone in her room. The building office was closed, and the nearest pay phone was down the street.

Alice Kendall with the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre agrees that more phones would make the neighbourhood safer.

“If they’re witnessing a crime, they can’t do anything to stop it,” she said.  “And the same is if you’re sick, and you can’t get out because you’re sick and nobody has access to phones to tell anybody.”

Linda Malcolm, a VPD liaison officer, told residents at the meeting that police are handing out cell phones to women.

Reliance on pay phones

Cell phones are now affordable for residents, but many others still rely on pay phones.

There are pay phones at Powell and Columbia Street counted 19 public pay phones in the Downtown Eastside on Hastings and Cordova Streets. Telus operates a majority of pay phones in the area.

“We recognize that in low-income neighborhoods, a pay phone provides an important service,” Telus spokesman Shawn Hall said.

“Often we hear from landlords that the primary users of the phone are drug dealers and prostitutes looking for the anonymity of the pay phone, and they don’t want that kind of traffic in their store, or on their corner,” Hall said.

Hall said Telus has made compromises such as installing “curfew phones” which only dial 911 after a certain time at night, and operate as regular phones during the day.

Police Chief Jim Chu is meeting with Telus to discuss the possibility of installing more phones, according to a recent news report.

Malcolm said police and partnering organizations have distributed 75 cell phones so far. However, phones are only one piece of the solution.

Related: Why pay phones are needed in the Downtown Eastside

Police and trust

“The police need to focus on the fact that people don’t trust them, and that they cannot approach the police when they do have information that is relevant to their work,” Kendall said. “The ability for people to actually report information needs to be treated differently in this community.”

Police discuss community safety and trust with residents

Williams met with an officer two days after the incident she witnessed.

“The VPD officer told me that I hadn’t seen anything when I told him what happened,” Williams said.

Residents at the public meeting told police to focus on building relationships.

“On one side, we have a very skeptical community, and a police department that is trying to rethink the way they work in and with the community,” said Dalannah Gail Bowen, an activist and member of the Women’s Memorial March committee.

“So there’s a lot of potential there, for us to at least develop an ongoing communication.”

Williams now has her own cell phone. She says she wants police to give emergency phones to all residents who need them, not just women at risk.

“The residents who live down here are very caring about each other,” Williams said.

“When you make the housed of the Downtown Eastside safe by giving them phones, all of the women will be safe, because then we will able to watch for them, we will be able to be their eyes and ears.”


  • This is an important story, and you do a good job of giving it a human face. I love the feature photo and ending quote!

  • I really like how you connected this story to the bigger issue of trust between residents and the police.

  • How much does it cost for the city to put in pay phones? It’s seems like it could be such a quick fix, and an important one. Thanks for showing us that.

  • I hope the point about the residents of the DTES not having SAFE access to 911 do not go unacknowledged. Pay phones on the street do NOT provide safety for the DTES. Safe access to 911 INSIDE the SRO’s is the way to go, not pay phones to be robbed on the streets. 911 phones on the street are a good idea, but pay phones (or free ‘local-call’ phones) inside hotels and SRO’s NEED to be available to provide SAFE ACCESS to 911 for the tenants. Then and only then will safety be improved in the DTES. Residents without safe access to 911 will provide no safety to anyone.

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