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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Gendered precarity and the politics of care : histories of homelessness, home, and community-making in Downtown Eastside Vancouver Longstaffe, Meghan Elizabeth


By the 1960s, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside was a space of poverty, precarious housing, homelessness, violence, and mortal risk for women residents, many of whom were Indigenous. Between the 1960s and 1980s, women of diverse class and cultural backgrounds, including White women, Indigenous women, and other women of colour, identified these conditions as a problem and responded by developing new social services. Through feminist analysis of documentary and oral historical sources related to women’s poverty in this neighbourhood and responding development of a new service infrastructure, this dissertation offers a new history of gendered precarity and politics in late-twentieth-century urban Canada. Specifically, this work connects social work, philanthropy, Christian charity, and community-based labour to political activism to situate what I call a politics of care as an important aspect of late-twentieth-century social movements. By bringing together the concepts of care and precarity in a unique framework, this dissertation illuminates entangled structures of inequity that precipitated, shaped, and entrenched women’s poverty, homelessness, and vulnerability to violence, poor health, and untimely death in the city, but also the creative ways women endured, resisted, challenged, and changed these conditions. Women’s organizing, however, had complex, even contradictory, outcomes: this history shows that care work mitigated but also sustained inequity. Limited in material ways, these women addressed only the conditions, and not the causes of precarity. Nevertheless, through their activism, these women remade this neighbourhood: they transformed the social and physical geographies of the Downtown Eastside to be more responsive to the immediate material needs of marginalized women and families, and thus laid the foundation for a community-oriented neighbourhood. This historical study has present-day implications. It demonstrates that until structures of poverty are attended to with large-scale political will and state investment, precarity will persist. Most significantly, it shows that an empowerment model of care that equips people with the resources in place to create change in their own lives, is what is most effective at producing different, more hopeful futures.

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