Continuing the conversation about safe spaces

What does the word “safety” evoke for you? Some universal elements might be: warm, inviting—a space to come in from the cold, where faces are friendly or at least unthreatening. At its heart, though, safety is about a lack of danger: a place where someone can let down their guard or tend to their needs. Sometimes, safety of that kind can mean that other people in the same space, at the same time, might offer a decreased likelihood of danger or injury.

Last month, RCP published an article about the loss of the local 7-Eleven. Its closure has resulted in a loss of safe space for many of the most vulnerable people in our area. It used to have an outdoor payphone, free air for tires, and accessible washrooms (for customers, at least). It also provided a lighted, public space that generally contained one or more potential witnesses, in case someone feared for their safety while out and about. While our community still has Sprucewood Library, it’s not the same because it’s not open at all hours.

That said, a sense of safety is highly subjective, and what may be safe for one person—interacting with police, for example—may feel threatening to someone else. PressProgress, The Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women, and Black Lives Matter Edmonton released a report last year showing that police disproportionately stop and investigate Indigenous women and young black men, a practice known as “carding.”

The perception of sanctuary or refuge varies greatly depending on our position in society. For someone who doesn’t routinely encounter people living or working on the street, walking into the 7-Eleven may have been intimidating. It’s important to note, however, that this is an issue of perception, not an actual lack of safety. As a society, we are generally taught that poverty is a personal failing, rather than the result of systemic barriers or significant gaps in service. Internalizing such views results in fear not only of poverty, but of poor people themselves. Encountering homeless people, sex workers, and/or panhandlers may push people out of their comfort zones, but carries little to no risk.

People who are homeless, particularly if mental health issues are a factor, are actually more likely to be the victims of violence than to engage in violence themselves. Which brings us again to safe spaces, and what it means to have access to such places.

Do communities have a responsibility to provide universally accessible safe spaces in the absence of other alternatives? If so, what should such spaces look like, and who (if anyone) should be given priority access?

Perhaps those most in need of safety should be given priority in designing such spaces. If city council were to fund working groups of unhoused/financially insecure people from each community in order to develop plans for safe spaces (including affordable community housing), communities could better meet the needs of residents. Each community could develop their spaces based on specific criteria while supporting cultural connection and increasing community engagement overall.

Such safe spaces would be universally accessible: not just for mobility, but including access to translators (including various dialects of sign language), unconditional acceptance, free food, places to nap, secular, play spaces for children, and wrap-around, comprehensive support services. It could also offer community engagement opportunities, as the flip side of needing a safe space becomes providing the safe space. Trauma-informed, culturally proficient program managers could work with community members to set out how to both create and maintain such safe spaces as part of a general harm reduction strategy as well as supporting transitions to housing.

During the recent deep freeze in Edmonton, city council initially issued no directive to open the LRT stations to lessen the chances of anyone dying from exposure. While Edmonton has a number of shelter beds, organizational policies can create barriers: people barred due to intoxication; people experiencing harm from workers or other shelter residents; and the required separation from pets or loved ones. Social workers in our libraries are not a substitute for comprehensive, non-means-tested (universal and freely provided services), wrap-around services, particularly given our current system of patchwork agencies.

Safe spaces are far more difficult to find for Edmonton’s most vulnerable—the people who need them the most. Building community includes understanding who in our community is in need, and using our means to provide supports.

Featured Image: Safe spaces should be accessible to everyone. | Pixabay