For years, the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver has had the unenviable reputation of being the poorest postal code in Canada. It’s a place where drug addiction, sex work and police violence are part of daily life. Tragically, 30 per cent of the local population, mainly women, also suffer from HIV infection.
Despite these deeply rooted and challenging issues, the DTES is also home to a dedicated community of people who work tirelessly to make things better. One such group is the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective (VWHC), an organization that began almost 40 years ago to “empower women to take control of their health through self-advocacy, information and knowledge, and activism.”
While VWHC’s impact goes far beyond the DTES, one of its most significant new projects—Lu’s: A Pharmacy for Women—is located on West Hastings, in the heart of the neighbourhood.
The area currently has no less than 19 pharmacies. However, many of them exist almost exclusively to dispense lucrative methadone prescriptions. They are inhospitable and dangerous places, especially for women. What’s more, health care services in the neighbourhood are inadequate to service local needs. This situation spawned the birth of an idea: a social enterprise to fill the gap.
For the uninitiated, a social enterprise combines revenue generation with the goal of achieving social, cultural, community economic or environmental outcomes. In Canada, they are also called enterprising non-profits. Regardless of the label, they are a way to use commerce and a clear mission to support broader community goals.
In designing Lu’s, Caryn Duncan, Executive Director of the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective, said, “We wanted to create a beautiful, feminine environment that combines client-centred and security-conscious design principles. In other words, a safe, healthy, inviting and confidential space where women help other women to help themselves.”
Named after Lucette Hansen, a long time supporter of the VWHC, Lu’s is expected to serve three main groups:
- Women with barriers to access to health care like undocumented immigrants or newly arrived residents to BC who have to fulfill a three-month waiting period before getting health care coverage
- Women who live and work in the Downtown Eastside, including sex trade workers and the homeless
- Women students who attend one of the four post-secondary institutes or dozens of language schools in downtown Vancouver
Beyond the pharmacy itself, the 2,500 square foot facility boasts an examination room, a health information resource centre, a computer centre, a counseling and “chill” lounge, and restrooms. As well, Lu’s will provide services such as primary care from a nurse practitioner or doctor (they are currently looking to fund this position) and workshops on topics like patient’s rights.
In addition to its social mandate, Lu’s also reflects strong environmental principles. The façade has been rebuilt to flood the space with natural light. The pharmacy counter is made from reclaimed materials from the Wood Science Department at UBC. The remarkable chandeliers are made out of recycled and found objects like hangers, plastic pipe and wine glasses. Finally, the waiting bench is made out of found chairs and recycled materials.
Lu’s has clearly struck a chord: it has seen a remarkable outpouring of support from the community. For example, Central City Foundation, Lu’s landlord, offered generous leasing rates; Canstar Restoration and Mott Electric, two contractors, donated their services; the UBC Architecture School offered pro-bono design services; FreeGeek, the computer re-use and recycling centre, furnished computers; and Now Communications guided their communications efforts.
Without these donations and support from more than a dozen other organizations, Lu’s could not happen. Since they receive no funding from the BC Ministry of Health, they have no choice but to enroll others in their vision. After three years of consultation, planning and elbow grease, that vision is almost realized: Lu’s is scheduled to open in a few weeks.