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.


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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 (

The Mysterious Disappearance-April 2,1999
Mayor: No Reward-April 9,1999
Prayer Service Held-May 13,1999
Taxpayers Balk-Cells-May 21,1999
Two More Missing-May 26,1999
Vancouver Cops Consult US-June 1,1999
Cadaver Dogs to Hunt-June 11,1999
Four More Missing-July 27,1999



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

Updated: August 21, 2016