Is sanctuary enough for sex workers?


December 20, 2006

VANCOUVER -- For years, Vancouver turned a blind eye to the mysterious disappearance of dozens of prostitutes from the city's Downtown Eastside. But just before the start of a sensational trial alleging that many of the women were murdered by a serial killer, the city has apparently found its heart.

City hall has given preliminary approval to a location for Canada's first 24-hour drop-in centre for sex-trade workers. Police have renewed their commitment to a $100,000 reward related to the missing-women case. And a rundown hotel has been converted into housing for women who are victims of violence.

For years, family and friends of missing women have been petitioning, marching and shouting for more thorough police investigations and more support for the vulnerable women who sell sex from street corners. But little was done to help families search for the missing or to aid those working in the industry.

Robert Pickton's first-degree murder trial in the deaths of six women from the Downtown Eastside, now scheduled to begin on Jan. 22, is expected to draw attention to Vancouver's hesitant response to the plight of street prostitutes.

(Mr. Pickton has been charged with an additional 20 murders, which will come to trial later.)

"There is going to be a big spotlight [on the Downtown Eastside], with the Pickton trial going on, and people will see that things have not changed much," said Jeanne Legare, vice-president of the board of WISH, a service agency for sex workers.

"The women still face the same harsh realities. Evidence at the trial will be shocking to a lot of people, disheartening. But for the women here, it is their day-to-day life."

Last week, Vancouver City Council endorsed a plan to give WISH a 10-year lease in a city-owned building.

This marks a turning point in the agency's frustrating search for a home.

The unanimous vote was "huge, just huge for us," Ms. Legare said. City hall brought all interested parties together, including community and business groups, she said. "The proposal went through council without debate. This would not have happened a year ago," she said.

Vancity Credit Union gave WISH a charitable contribution of $1-million in 2003 at the height of the publicity about the search at Mr. Pickton's property. The money was to support WISH's efforts to buy a property for a 24-hour drop-in centre for sex workers -- the centre was to be a safe haven for women regularly exposed to violence.

WISH considered more than 18 sites before finding a willing partner. But it quickly became obvious that buying a property was an unrealistic goal.

Rapidly escalating property values and community opposition to a drop-in centre for sex-trade workers led to the group considering a rental with a long-term lease, said Elisabeth Geller, manager of Vancity's community program. The $1-million grant will be available for property improvements on the leased premises.

Ms. Geller noted that the location of a drop-in centre on Alexander Street in the Downtown Eastside has been supported by numerous city officials and committees, including the city manager, the police department, the social-planning division, real-estate planning and council.

"The Pickton trial -- jury selection and the trial starting soon -- I think it makes people even more aware, more wanting to protect women in the sex trade and support attempts to have them exit the sex trade," Ms. Geller said. "To have all of these groups on board for something like this is really significant. There will be some hurdles ahead . . . but this was a major hurdle and they got over it."

The development-permit process will begin early next year and is expected to take another six months. Public hearings will be held, giving residents and businesses in the area a chance to express their views.

The police force's decision to renew its commitment to contributing $30,000 toward a $100,000 award was made without controversy. The award, first offered in 1999, was extended for one more year. The provincial government provided the other $70,000.

The award is for information leading to a conviction for kidnapping or murder of women listed on the current missing-women poster. Although Mr. Pickton is charged with 26 murders, police have a list of 65 missing women from the Downtown Eastside.

The third initiative announced recently was the opening of Sereena's House, a 57-unit single-room housing facility for Downtown Eastside women who have been victims of violence. The renovated residence has been named after Sereena Abotsway, one of the six victims in Mr. Pickton's first trial.

The building was formerly known as the New Wings Hotel, a rough spot where there were three murders last year. The city closed the hotel and revoked its business licence. The owner invested more than $1-million in upgrading the hotel and then asked the Atira Women's Resource Society whether the agency was interested in running the hotel.

Ms. Abotsway was a long-time client of Atira. "We knew her well, and this is our way of honouring her," executive director Janice Abbott said.

"Sereena was very eager to please, eager in a way that women who are seriously oppressed and [have] experienced trauma can be," Ms. Abbott said. "She had such an easy laugh, easy smile. She was very emotional, in a lot of pain."

Atira has a no-barrier policy, which means clients are not screened for anything. The agency provides services to women who have been victims of violence, regardless of whether they are actively using drugs, engaging in sex work or facing significant mental-health issues.

"Because we are no-barriers, we end up working with a lot of women that other organizations won't work with," Ms. Abbott said.

Atira has a list of 400 women waiting for a room in a place like Sereena House. As the city moves forward with providing more facilities, no one is talking about what would have happened if places such as it and the new WISH drop-in centre were available years ago for women in the Downtown Eastside.

Copyright 2006 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Courtesy of
The Globe and Mail



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

Updated: August 21, 2016