Cell Phones for Safety

Cell safety for sex sellers
The Province

Adrienne Tanner and Lora Grindlay,

Staff Reporters The Province

May 14, 1998

Prostitutes on Vancouver's downtown east side will soon be carrying cellular phones to help guard their safety.

The B.C. ministry of women's equality yesterday donated $3,000 to Grandma's House, a prostitutes' drop-in centre.

Minister Sue Hammell said she wants to help protect prostitutes, who've been disappearing at an alarming rate from Vancouver streets.

Twenty-two women have vanished in the area since 1995. All were sex-trade workers, drug addicts or both. No bodies have been found.

The cheque will pay for about 100 cell phones, Hammell said.

Ongoing costs will be low, as the phones are strictly "help phones" and can't be used to conduct business, said Jaimie Lee Hamilton, who runs the drop-in centre.

B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell said the project shows the New Democrats have their priorities all wrong: "There's a lot of places I can think of to spend the money rather than on cell phones for prostitutes."

A children's agency would be able to do wonderful things for kids with the same amount of money, he said.

But Hamilton said a cell phone could mean the difference between life and death on the downtown east side. "If it saves even one life, it's money well spent," she said.

Added Hammell: "I myself know, as a woman who carries a cell, that they do add a dimension of safety."

Meanwhile, Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen has some hoops to jump through if he wants a $2-million reward to help crack the missing-women case, say police.

Owen has said the city, Vancouver police and the attorney-general's ministry should be prepared to pay a $100,000 reward in the case of each missing woman.

But spokeswoman Const. Anne Drennan said a $2-million reward would be "outside of the norm by a huge amount -- huge."

She said Owen "would have to jump through a lot of hoops if he was to suggest or hope that he would get authorization for that amount of money."

She said a typical reward for arrest and conviction of a homicide suspect is $10,000.

"We're not talking about reality," said Drennan.

"We're talking about the opinion of the mayor, who happens to be the chair of the police board."

Owen was not available for comment.

W.I.S.H - Women's Information Safe House

Prostitutes to get cellphones

Friday, May 14, 1999

VANCOUVER -- Amid fears that a serial killer is preying on Vancouver's prostitutes, B.C. agreed yesterday to provide cellphones to women plying the sex trade in a depressed city neighbourhood.
Provincial officials said the phones would allow the women to call the police for help if attacked. The $3,000 in funding will build on an effort already begun by the prostitutes to protect themselves.
More than 20 prostitutes have disappeared from the city's Eastside area since 1995, prompting fears that the women are being preyed upon by a serial killer.
Police maintain there is no evidence any of the missing women were victims of foul play, but they acknowledge that many of them are likely dead. Reuters

BC Government Defends Phones For Prostitutes

TORONTO (Reuters) - The British Columbia government says it will go ahead with its plan to provide Vancouver prostitutes with cell phones despite the whirlwind of controversy it has created.

The government's announcement that it will donate $3,000 toward a program to provide cell phones to prostitutes in Vancouver's downtown Eastside has been met with a wall of disapproval.

``More than 90 percent were opposed to the idea,'' said Loren Smith, city editor of the Vancouver Province, which ran a page of mostly angry letters to the editor in its Monday paper.

But Terry Harrison, of the Ministry of Women's Equality, is not worried about the backlash, saying that once people have all the facts, their reaction will change.

``We're dealing with a group in society who are not socially accepted and so anything that will help these individuals will obviously raise a few eyebrows,'' said Harrison.

She added the phones will all be second-hand analog phones, programmed to make 911 calls only.

She said the initiative is an important one, amid fears that a serial killer is preying on Vancouver's prostitutes.

More than 20 prostitutes have disappeared without a trace from an area in the city's Eastside -- one of Canada's poorest neighborhoods -- since 1995.

``They're under siege right now,'' Morrison said of the prostitute disappearances.

The program will be administered by ``Grandma's House,'' a drop-in center for prostitutes, which has already begun a small-scale pilot program a few months ago.


W.I.S.H - Women's Information Safe House


LETTER OF THE DAY     SUE HAMMELL, Minister of Women's Equality, Victoria

Prostitutes deserve the protection of cell phones

As for the recent coverage of my ministry's emergency cellphone initiative in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, I would like to say that this is about the safety of women at a time when 21 women have disappeared and are presumed to have died violent deaths.

It is not about prostitutes getting free cell phones.

These phones are not high technology or deluxe. They are previously owned and adapted so that they can only be used to call 911. The user presses a single button and the phone automatically dials 911. There are no airtime costs or monthly fees. The phones themselves have almost no "street-value" and pawnshops are unlikely to take them.

The phones will be the property of Grandma's House, a front-line service agency that provides support to sex-trade workers. They will coordinate the use of the phones by lending them out. The phones will not be the property of any single person.

The cost of this community initiative is $3,000. The grant will help Grandma's House expand its existing and successful phone-lending program, which was developed to respond to the fear this community is experiencing.

The pilot project involved 10 phones, none of which has been pawned or stolen. If this expanded program prevents just one woman from being assaulted it will have paid for itself many times over.

Grandma's House has found that just having the cell phones visible is a strong deterrent to someone looking to do one of these women harm and may aid in catching a killer.

This effort supports other work to address the multitude of issues that keep people stuck in a cycle of abuse, addictions and poverty.

The comments that cause me the most concern are those that suggest that because women in question are prostitutes they just don't matter. The lives of these mothers, daughters, sisters and friends are not disposable.

I reject any suggestion that these women are not deserving of our care.

CPA Confidence Group joins search

Friday , May 21, 1999

British Columbia Will Not Buy Cell Phones For Prostitutes

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - British Columbia has backed away from funding a controversial offer to buy cell phones for Vancouver prostitutes, but said Thursday the safety project would instead be privately funded.

Prompted by fears that a serial killer was stalking Vancouver's prostitutes, the Canadian province offered C$3,000 last week to buy phones so the women could call police if their lives were threatened.

The offer prompted widespread criticism, on the grounds the phones would be used by the prostitutes to solicit business and because the money could be better used to address issues that force women into the illegal sex trade.

The provincial minister of women's equality, Susan Hammell, said fears that criticism might scuttle the effort prompted private donors to fund the C$3,000 needed for the phones.

``We remain committed to making sure the lives of these mothers, daughters, sisters and friends are valued,'' said Hammell, who said the money originally offered by the province would be spent on other support services.

More than 20 prostitutes working the streets of Vancouver's poor Downtown Eastside neighborhood have disappeared without a trace since 1995, prompting fear that a serial killer has been murdering the women and hiding the bodies.

Police have said they suspect many of the missing are dead, but have no hard evidence any were victims of foul play. The city and provinces are preparing a C$100,000 reward to find a killer if the women were murdered.

But Donors Agree to Foot Bill in Vancouver

May 21, 1999

By Robert Anthony Phillips

VANCOUVER, British Columbia ( -- Criticism of a plan to use tax dollars to buy cell phones for 100 prostitutes so they could call police if their lives were threatened has prompted this province's Women's Equality Minister to back away from the plan.


Women's Equality Minister Sue Hammell

Women's Equality Minister Sue Hammell announced earlier this month that her office would pay for phones because of growing concern over the disappearances of 23 prostitutes from Vancouver's streets since 1995.

But outraged taxpayers called the ministry office and wrote letters to the media saying they didn't want their tax money used to give hookers phones, a ministry spokesperson said.

The ministry says that instead, private donations will be used to pay for the phones.

Serial killer on the loose?

Terry Harrison, a spokesperson for Hammell, told that instead of buying the phones, the ministry has agreed to allow two private donors to pay $3,000 (Canadian) to buy them for the prostitutes.

"They'll pay for the phones, and we'll spend money in other ways. We have just redirected our funds," Harrison said.

Related Stories:



The issue of the vanishing prostitutes has sparked a public outcry here for the past several months.

Since 1995, 23 women who worked the streets of the city's notorious Downtown Eastside have disappeared, and some believe they were the victims of a still-unknown serial killer. The women, all with drug and alcohol problems, had strong ties to the community and would not just leave the city, say friends and family members.

Relatives of the missing women and advocates for the prostitutes have criticized the police and the city for not doing enough to locate the women. Police say that they have no evidence that a serial killer is murdering the women.

Families put pressure on police

However, relatives of the prostitutes and advocacy groups have taken their stories to newspapers and the airwaves in order to put pressure on the police to put more resources into investigating the case.

As a result, the city and province are now offering a $100,000 (Canadian) reward for information on whereabouts of the women and have assigned more police officers to investigate the disappearances.

In addition, a radio station has been running segments devoted to the missing women for the past three weeks. Guests have included a psychic, a criminologist who has studied Canadian sex laws and violence against prostitutes, as well as relatives of the victims, police and prostitutes.

To bring further attention to the disappearances, a prayer service was held for the women on May 12 and was attended by 300 people. The event included a church service and march to a waterfront park where flowers were laid on a stone monument.

Outraged letters

Hammell proposed giving the prostitutes the cell phones on May 13. Although the phones would be rigged so the women could only call 911 if their lives were in danger, some critics argued that the hookers would use the phones to call their clients.

"Most of the criticism came from the public through letters to newspapers and calls [to] the ministry," Harrison told

Some of the debate has been chronicled on the British Columbia television Web site.

What's next: 'guns for bank robbers?'

"Since the gov't is distributing syringes to drug addicts and now cellular phones to prostitutes; what's next; guns to bank robbers?" wrote one outraged viewer.

"The announcement that taxpayers would be sharing the cost of issuing Cellphones to prostitutes is simply UNBELIEVABLE!" wrote another. "What next??? Drug Addicts who might have to call 911 if they took too many drugs?"

A government worker on strike posted a comment saying "[A]ll we keep hearing from the government is THERE IS NO MORE MONEY and the next thing you know they have found some money to purchase cell phones for prostitutes. Hell, I know people who have jobs and they can't afford a cell phone."

Not every viewer was against the cell phone plan.

One posting signed by "former and current prostitutes" charged that criticism of the cell phone plan shows that the province is full of "ignorant, misinformed, bigoted people." Other views said the cell phones were a good idea.

Donor wants to help community

Wayne Leng, a friend of one of the missing prostitutes and one of the people who has pushed for more police resources for the investigation, said it didn't matter to him who provided the cell phones, the ministry or private donors.

"I think [Hammell] would have continued on with buying the cell phones if she didn't get a private donor to buy them," he said. "I don't think she backed down."

A Vancouver businessman who is donating the money to buy the phones said he did so because "we have to start somewhere."

"This might not be the only solution, but it's a start," said the businessman, who requested that his name not be used. "We just believe in trying to put something back in the community, and if we can help just one person, then it will be worthwhile."

The phones will be distributed by Grandma's House, a drop-in center for prostitutes located in the Downtown Eastside, officials said.

Robert Anthony Phillips is an staff writer (


ELM STREET-Vancouver's Missing Prostitutes



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

Updated: August 21, 2016