A.J. Withers mobilizes research to improve housing conditions in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

April 26, 2023
By Casey McCarthy

A.J. Withers, the Ruth Wynn Woodward Junior Chair of Simon Fraser University’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Department, is leading research to address the homelessness crisis in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES).

The research project, titled Mapping the Carceral Housing Assemblage, will inform housing advocacy work in the DTES and is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) through a Partnership Engage Grant (PEG).

Until now, few academic studies have examined the interconnections between social services in Vancouver’s DTES, while also describing the carceral, or “jail-like,” conditions experienced by individuals accessing the housing system. Withers hopes that understanding these lived experiences will lead to more affordable, accessible, dignified housing in the DTES.

“Homelessness is treated as criminalized in our society, and many activists are concerned about the carceral continuum, or the ‘churn’ that people move through in the housing system,” says Withers. “The system we want to look at includes shelters, supportive housing, and single-room occupancy buildings (SROs), but it also includes hospitals, psychiatric and treatment facilities, jails, and the streets. We want to know how the system works, and we want to know about both the negative and positive experiences.”

As both a community organizer and an academic, Withers will collaborate on the project with co-investigator Nate Crompton of Our Homes Can’t Wait (OHCW), a coalition of DTES organizations. Through this partnership, the research findings from the project will empower and inform the efforts of housing and anti-poverty activists.

“In the past, many forms of social assistance have come about because of activism,” says Withers. “It is important for groups like Our Homes Can’t Wait to have as much information as possible, to be as effective as possible in bringing about change.” A community report on the project’s findings will be presented at a town hall meeting in the DTES, hosted by Our Homes Can’t Wait, to seek additional input from community members.

To gain insight into this complex network of housing and social services, Withers is working with all three levels of government. One of the project’s goals is to create policy recommendations, which will be presented to key service providers.

“We are in the middle of an ongoing and worsening housing crisis,” says Withers. “No matter what side of the spectrum we are on, people feel that it’s not working. It is important to look at the system to understand how it works, and what can be improved, so that we can find solutions.”