Services need to change in order for streets to be safer for sex workers
By The Canadian Press
December 30, 2007
VANCOUVER — Every week in Vancouver, a bad date sheet is put together by social service agencies and distributed to prostitutes, informing them of new beatings, rapes, kidnappings or robberies committed against people working in the Downtown Eastside.
On average, about eight incidents are reported a week.
It’s a number that doesn’t sit well with Kate Gibson, executive director of WISH, a drop-in centre for survival-sex workers, especially since she says only five to 10 per cent of bad dates are brought to their attention.
“Women don’t report them because then they have to relive them; they have to go through the whole thing again,” she said. “For some women it’s just unbearable.”
In her four years at WISH, Gibson hasn’t seen many changes made to protect sex workers against bad dates, much less the confinement of drug addiction or stigmatization by society. All these factors make it very hard for women to try to leave the sex trade.
The wave of media attention that came with the trial of serial killer Robert Pickton, who used the Downtown Eastside as a hunting ground, didn’t do much to help the neighbourhood or its residents.
Pickton was convicted Dec. 9 of murdering six women all known to sell sex on the streets, and he was sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 25 years. He faces trial on 20 more first-degree murder counts in 2008.
In order for things to start improving, Gibson said survival-sex workers, who are often addicted to drugs, need treatment on demand. If someone wants to try and kick their addiction, they shouldn’t be made to wait days or even weeks for a chance to do so.
“You’re not striking while the iron’s hot,” she said.
Gibson said the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, which provides some social services, is looking to improve that with a hotline that arranges services for addicts. But it will be some time before things are in order.
A lack of supported housing for women is also a lingering problem. Social workers say that in order to have stability, a person needs a safe space to live.
B.C. Community Services Minister Ida Chong wasn’t available for an interview but officials outlined funding for programs aimed at sex-trade workers.
“The Ministry of Community Services alone spends over $4.2 million in Vancouver on transition houses, second stage housing, stopping the violence counselling, children who witness abuse counselling and outreach and multicultural outreach services — to connect women with the health, housing and income supports available that will make a real difference in their lives,” Anne McKinnon, communications director with the ministry, said in an e-mail to The Canadian Press.
But most of the existing housing that the government has bought to refurbish as new social housing is already filled with tenants.
Gibson said that still leaves thousands of people without safe, supported housing. “And I’m not sure that’s in the plans right now,” she said.
Advocates say a safe work environment is also essential in order to help stop women from going missing or being attacked.
Jody Paterson worked as executive director at the Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society, or PEERS, in Victoria. She’s now in the process of trying to open a co-op brothel run and used by sex-trade workers.
A similar effort is being made in Vancouver.
Women who work outside on the street are the most marginalized, so addicted to drugs their gut instinct fails to kick in when choosing a date, she said. Once that instinct is gone, women will often find themselves in dangerous situations.
“It’s the perfect environment for a killer,” she said.
Paterson wants to open the facility as an escort agency, which is legal. But she said ultimately the Criminal Code would have to change in order for prostitution to be a less-shrouded industry.
“That is a long, long battle, especially with the current government,” she said.
Some who work closely with survival sex-trade workers say their biggest challenge — an almost impossible one — is changing the way people see women who sell sex to survive.
“Pimp and ho” theme parties and even video games such as Grand Theft Auto trivialize the gruelling reality that sex-trade workers must live with every day.
“It’s dangerous and exploitive for women and people make light (of sex trade workers) and consider it a form of entertainment and it’s not,” Gibson said. “People need to understand what this really means and what they’re talking about ... it’s not funny.
“That’s why people face violence every day, it’s the attitude of people towards them.”
While Gibson’s job is often stressful and depressing, she has seen some improvements over the years.
The biggest positive change is the relationship between sex trade workers and the police, which in the past lacked trust.
But she has to keep up hope to keep working.
“You need to believe in the women and their strengths and their tenacity to manage to get through their day, every day,” she said. “You really need to believe in them. And you need to allow everyone respect and dignity.”
It’s that respect and dignity that helped CeeJai Julian get off the streets. She started at the age of 12 and continued working for 22 years, all the while hooked on cocaine and heroin.
She decided to change her life after a violent date that left her in bad physical and mental state. She went to Prostitution Awareness Counselling and Education, or PACE, for help.
Julian now works as a support worker at PEERS in Vancouver. She says social services such as PACE, PEERS and the detox centre she frequented were what helped make it possible to kick her addiction and start over.
“The guy at the detox and even the doctors didn’t give up on me,” she said. “They really wanted to help me.
“Knowing that they care and they don’t want to see me die, that really lured me in. I needed to be with people that would love me, not hurt me or give up on me.
“Leaving the street and that lifestyle for so long, and then having people be kind to me, I would start crying because it was so overwhelming.”