When Mebrat Beyene talks about how challenging the last couple of years have been, the range of emotions on her face is telling.
“It’s difficult to do this work at the best of times,” says the executive director of the WISH Drop-In Centre Society, before breaking into a sardonic chuckle. “Though I don’t really know what those are.”
Fair enough. The nonprofit WISH was established 38 years ago with the goal of improving the health, safety and well-being of women involved in Vancouver’s street-based sex trade. Beyene has been with the organization since 2015, but the most recent years have inarguably been the hardest in her tenure.
There have been some highlights, to be sure: the centre was able to open Canada’s first-ever 24/7 emergency shelter for women-identifying sex workers in 2020, and Beyene herself won a YWCA Women of Distinction Award. But mostly, it’s been challenging. The pandemic only exacerbated the trials of the ongoing and unprecedented toxic drug supply, as well as the homelessness and poverty issues that continue to hover over the city. COVID-19 restrictions resulted in lost income for sex workers, which in turn limited their ability to turn down unsafe work.
“We saw during COVID what it looks like when multiple levels of government pull out all the stops to respond to a crisis,” Beyene maintains. “Okay, well, the Downtown Eastside has been dealing with multiple crises—where is the pulling out all the stops approach? It feels like we’re putting Band-Aids on massive issues. People need to be housed and their health and mental health need to be addressed immediately.”
In the last two years, WISH, with nearly 200 workers and 117 volunteers, has experienced decreased supply—in the form of staffing shortages—along with an increase in demand: the new shelter hit capacity almost immediately after opening, and had to turn away sex workers more than 1,000 times during its first year.
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In many other industries, there would be a plethora of startups looking to solve this demand and supply deficiency. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in the nonprofit sector.
Most anyone you ask with experience in community work in Vancouver expresses great gratitude that Beyene is in her current role, helping find stability for the city’s most vulnerable. But as she fights against what sometimes must feel like a stacked deck at a rigged table in a corrupt casino, it’s fair to wonder if things will—or even can—get better.
Beyene’s family, originally from Eritrea, was living in Ethiopia during the Eritrean War of Independence. They moved to Montreal when she was three months old. She didn’t forget her roots, though—she did both a bachelor’s (McGill) and a master’s (Howard University in Washington, D.C.) in African Studies.
She thought she’d go into academia after that, but ended up continuing in the community activism she had started in Montreal. “It was usually around police violence against the Black community,” Beyene recalls. “As police relations continued to deteriorate in and around Montreal, every weekend there was some kind of police incident involving members of the Black community.”
Beyene moved to Vancouver in the early 2000s with her then-husband and got a job working in federal MP Hedy Fry’s Vancouver Centre constituency office before moving to Status of Women Canada, where Fry was the minister in charge.
“I think her confidence grew as she did better and better,” says Fry about Beyene’s early days. “Everyone knows Mebrat to be funny, engaging, charismatic, personable. But there’s no beating around the bush with her. She gets the work done.”
After about a year working with the veteran member of parliament, Beyene returned to the nonprofit arena to become the executive director at PeerNetBC, which provides training, resources and support to peer-led initiatives across the province.
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“Having worked as a program officer at Status of Women and then moving into the nonprofit sector, where she doesn’t have all the kinds of things you get in a department, like pensions, health care, drug prescription programs—that tells you about her personality,” says Fry.
As Beyene tells it, not working with and for community groups wasn’t ever much of an option for her. Instead, she used the government experience as a sort of training ground. “It was fantastic to work on the government side of things,” she says. “I had been a grantee forever, writing grants or being part of a team that was writing grants, so it was really valuable to understand how government works, how funding works, and what the avenues actually are versus what’s on the page.”
Following the birth of her son, Beyene took two years off before she began working as a consultant, doing organizational development and support contracts for a variety of nonprofits. A lifelong musician and singer, she also took to teaching her son’s music classes. “It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had,” she says. “Singing and dancing and playing with kids and their families, being able to bring grandparents, aunties, uncles, brothers, sisters all together.”
But it wasn’t long before duty reared its complicated head. Kate Gibson, the longtime executive director at WISH, was retiring. “I remember seeing that job post come out and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a massive job, I wonder who’s going to take that on?’” recalls Beyene. The foundation went through a couple of posting rounds, which Beyene says is not uncommon. “Downtown Eastside work is not easy,” she notes. “You want to find the right person. And if the pay is not really up there, it can be hard. Lots of nonprofits end up going through several rounds of searches.”
She got some calls imploring her to think about it. “I said to myself I would never do another ED job, that I just wanted to have some time for my kid. And I went and did it anyway,” she says with a laugh. “I’m a glutton for punishment, I think.”
The seven years she’s spent thus far at WISH have been a marriage of high-level policy work and grinding it out on the ground. “It’s everything from literally mopping up from a flood to meeting with ministers and the mayor’s office,” says Beyene. That seems fitting for WISH, which has two separate but equal goals. “We are definitely a frontline social service organization, but we’re also trying to move the needle on really complex, intersecting issues, like poverty, homelessness, addiction and gender-based violence.”
There isn’t a silver bullet for any of these issues, but there is one path that Beyene adamantly believes is key in unlocking this prism of connected problems.
“There are moments where it feels as simple as housing, housing, housing—first and foremost,” she says. “Because nothing can happen unless someone feels some form of stabilization in their lives. That’s everything from shelters to supported and supportive housing to full housing.”
That solution will obviously rely on continued government support, and while she maintains that things have improved in terms of funding since the NDP took the provincial reins, the upcoming municipal election will also be crucial. One of Beyene’s former allies on council—Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer—decided not to run for mayor after pondering the idea.
“If you spend a bit of time around politics or community organizing, you learn to recognize the people who are doing the heavy lifting but not standing at the microphone,” says Reimer. “Mebrat to me seemed like one of those people. She makes a lot of stuff work, takes on a lot of emotional labour and doesn’t get recognition for that work. To do that, you either need to do it, or you have to find pure joy in it. Or it’s somewhere in the middle of that.”
For Beyene, one gets the sense it’s the latter. She’s always been more comfortable working in and for communities, she says. And it’s pretty clear she’s going to fight for this one and for the 800 or so visitors WISH sees annually. “We’re pushing for a true intersectional gender lens on these issues,” she maintains.
“Women, Indigenous folks, gender diverse folks, people of colour—at the intersections of all those identities are the folks falling through the most cracks and facing the most amount of vulnerability or risk of exploitation.”
But, she argues, if you were to simply look at the raw numbers, you’d quickly identify that there are more shelter and detox beds for men. “In the Downtown Eastside, at least 41 to 45 percent are women, but the services, the funding, it doesn’t match that.”
Fortunately, in her personal life, Beyene does know what the “best of times” looks like. To her, it’s engaging in community music and singing, often volunteering with the Vancouver Youth Choir and jamming out with her son.
“We have karaoke parties at home—just waiting for the neighbours to be like, ‘Yeah, you need to stop,’” she laughs. “I was introducing him to Wu Tang Clan yesterday, and he was like, ‘I don’t like this.’ I joked that I felt like a failure as a parent. He says, ‘What about Linkin Park?’ I’m not a fan, he’s trying to push that on me.”
Of course, Linkin Park once did an album with another hip-hop legend, Jay-Z. The title of that deliciously mid-2000s effort also fittingly describes where Beyene could be headed: Collision Course.