Apathy ruins plans to help B.C. prostitutes

Ambitious projects fall on tough times

Sept 1, 2006

VANCOUVER -- The desperate lives of drug addicts who worked as prostitutes were thrust into the limelight after pig farmer Robert Pickton was charged in 2002 with killing women who worked along the strolls of Vancouver's skid row.

People who said they wanted to make a difference in the lives of women addicted to drugs came out with ambitious plans to provide new detoxification beds, rural transition houses and a safe house.

But raising money proved difficult and fundraisers discovered major donors in the city were uncomfortable being associated with a charity devoted to drug-addicted prostitutes.

"Women in the sex trade are a hard sell," said Elaine Allan, who used to work at a women's drop-in centre in the eastside neighbourhood and knew some of the dead women.

"Unfortunately there is a stigma that exists around prostitution," said Anna Lilly, spokesperson for a celebrity effort that failed to raise enough funds to reach its goal.

The charities were also undermined by messy internal disputes and a bitter competition for funds. They quarrelled over who could speak on behalf of the victims' families, even arguing publicly about who could use the phrase "missing women."

Interviews this week with those involved in fundraising revealed that numerous plans have fizzled out during the past 4 years. Trust funds for donations have withered. Ambitious plans were shelved.

Valerie Hughes was despondent when she looked back on how little has been accomplished. "Talking to you made me so sad," Ms. Hughes said about an earlier interview. Her sister, Kerry Koski, was allegedly killed by Mr. Pickton.

Ms. Hughes spearheaded a campaign by the Missing Women's Legacy Society for a new facility to help drug addicts in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. After four years of fundraising, the legacy society has assets of $21,630, according to its most recent annual statement. It collected $760 last year.

"We were so touched by the response at first," she said. "We based our plans on the continuation of the response. We learned that the media and the public have a very short attention span."

Mr. Pickton was arrested on Feb. 22, 2002. He has been charged with the murders of 26 women who were addicted to drugs and worked as prostitutes, mostly in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. If convicted on all charges, the 56-year-old Port Coquitlam bachelor would be among the deadliest serial killers in North America.

The Pickton trial, which began on Jan. 30, starts again on Sept. 8 after a month-long recess. As the lawyers work on their courtroom strategy for the next phase in the trial, family, friends and community activists said in interviews this week they are beginning to think again about how to use the onslaught of attention that will invariably accompany the court proceedings.

Numerous initiatives in recent years have helped agencies provide services to addicts and others in the Downtown Eastside. But those involved in charities specifically earmarked for drug-addicted prostitutes said their projects never really caught fire.

The Buried Heart Society planned to provide a new treatment and recovery home for addicted women in the Downtown Eastside.

The charity had to abandon its plans and settle for distributing modest grants of a few thousand dollars each to some groups active in the neighbourhood.

The facility was to be financed mostly with proceedings from a celebrity CD, recorded in 2002 by some of Canada's top music talent: Colin James, Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page, Gord Downie of Tragically Hip, Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo, Neil Osborne of 54-40 and other musicians.

Official records were not available this week. Ms. Lilly estimated the project raised around $25,000 for Buried Heart.

Plans for a recovery home never got off the ground. "It involved more funding than we provided and they had no other source," Ms. Lilly said.

The fundraisers tried to encourage corporations and non-profit groups to buy the CD in bulk and give the music to their employees. "But we got nowhere. People felt uncomfortable with the subject matter, which was discouraging," she said.

Jack Cummer worked four years on a CD in honour of his granddaughter, Andrea Joesbury. He wanted to raise money to help women with drug problems move out of prostitution. He arranged for poet Susan Musgrave to write the lyrics to a song called Missing.

The CD, which was released this spring, has not yet brought in much money. Mr. Cummer, 76, said he was frustrated by the lack of promotion for the CD. "It seems to have fallen by the wayside," he said. "Just because someone says it was a good idea does not mean people will really get behind it."

Ms. Hughes said the Missing Women's Legacy Society campaign for an opiate detoxification centre and for "legacy house," a haven for women, stalled in 2004. A house had been donated but the charity could not come up with enough money to fix up the place to meet municipal safety standards. Reluctantly, Ms. Hughes had to forfeit the donated house.

Ms. Hughes, 50, said she had serious health problems in 2004, after police told her about the fate of her sister. She became both physically and emotionally exhausted.

Since becoming active again earlier this year, she has been working mostly on putting together memorial quilts. The charity is now dedicated to providing "quilts of hope" to women and children at risk. Ms. Hughes also has plans to support an art therapy program at Peardonville House, a drug rehabilitation centre for women in Abbotsford, B.C.

"Emotionally, I'm not able to do more. I do some fundraising, public speaking. But sometimes it's really hard," she said, adding that distributing memorial quilts is now her priority. "I really need 10 more sewing machines," she said.

Limited successes of charities for troubled women

Here are some charities that had limited success in raising funds for women addicted to drugs and working as prostitutes:

The Missing Women's Legacy Society hoped to set up a rapid opiate detoxification centre in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and a "legacy house" safe haven for women. After four years it had assets of $21,630. The society collected $760 last year.

The Streets Where You Live was patterned after the celebrity song We Are the World, which raised $50-million (U.S.) in the 1980s to help famine relief efforts in Ethiopia. Streets brought together Colin James, Steven Pages of the Barenaked Ladies, Gord Downey of the Tragically Hip, Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo, Neil Osborne of 54-40 and other musicians. The song raised $20,000 to $25,000.

Funds from the CD were given to a charity called the Buried Heart Society, which also received $27,000 in 2003 from an auction of art by inmates. Organizers hoped for enough funds to cover the cost of a treatment and recovery home for addicted women in the Downtown Eastside. Via Nova Foundation, based in a church, was to build the residential treatment centre. Via Nova fell apart after its most active supporters moved on to other projects.

Another tribute song called Missing with lyrics penned by poet Susan Musgrave took four years to put together. The recording was released this year. The money was to support a program run by Haven Society in Nanaimo, to help homeless women secure housing and develop life skills. So far, the proceeds have been minimal.

Copyright 2006 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

CD offers hope to those left behind

Ode to the missing but not forgotten

House a legacy of missing women-Jan 31, 2003

Islanders walk for drug recovery-Oct 7, 2002

Stars to sing of fury over missing women-May 2, 2002

Vocalists sing their hearts out on CD for the missing women-Dec 18, 2002



Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016