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Sex workers face greater risk without support van: advocates

VANCOUVER – Sex workers and advocates held a candlelight vigil last night against the loss of an important source of night-time supplies and support.

Funding cuts are taking the Mobile Access Project (MAP) off the road. The MAP van is a roving support system started in 2004, in the wake of the disappearance of over 60 women from the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.

“We’re hoping that the van is not really gone,” said Geri, a sex worker. “It would be really bad for all of us women out here.”

Geri has been doing sex work for 26 years – since she was 13 years old – but she also has a day job as a landscaper, a husband and three children. Her husband called to check in with her while we were talking.

She is out on the streets seven nights a week.

“It’s easy money,” she said, “but it can be dangerous.”

Kate Gibson, the executive director of the WISH Drop-In Centre, one of the co-directors of the MAP van, said that many MAP workers have been in the sex trade themselves.

“They offer support and supplies for women who are working the streets overnight,” Gibson explained. “They have coffee and water and they take lots of bad date reports.”

WISH uses the bad date reports to create “red light alerts” for other sex workers. “Women are always asking for those reports to help keep themselves safe,” said Gibson.

Gibson added that the reports collected by the MAP van are one of the only ways police learn of assaults against sex workers, since most won’t go directly to the police.

“It provides a really great connection to the police and that’s the connection that the police need. And they can glean information from those reports,” said Gibson.

According to WISH and their partner, the Prostitution Alternatives, Counseling and Education Society, 95 per cent of all “bad date” reports are made to MAP staff. This provides sex workers “with Vancouver’s only immediate overnight warning system against violent predators,” they state.

The vigil was located at corners “where women stand,” Gibson said, from the Downtown Eastside to Commercial Drive and as far south as Kingsway and Joyce.

The van, a converted ambulance, was driving the route last night, visiting the sites of protest.

Sarena Talbot was one of the supporters at the gathering in Commercial Drive’s Grandview Park.

“It’s just horrible that these things get cut first,” said Talbot. “People need to have more information on why women are here in the first place. There’s such stigma attached.”

Vikki Peters came out to support the MAP program “because I’ve seen the good work they do.”

“Our family members could be down there,” said Peters. “We don’t need to lose more lives.”

The rally at Grandview Park was likely the largest, but other intersections attracted people and candles, an unusual sight for these all-but-abandoned corners where sex workers are usually the only people on the street at night.

A sex worker on Victoria and Pandora said the MAP van had helped her and added, “if you see them tell them to come here, I need some condoms.”

Geri, on the corner of Victoria and Franklin, said that “condoms cost a fortune,” and that they are just as important as clean needles. With a wry smile she gestured to the young woman who was collapsed on the steps behind her, adding, “although she needs that kind of help.”

Gibson said they have been seeking sustained funding from a collaboration between provincial ministries and that they ran out of money in January.

In response, the Ministry of Public Safety stated: “The ministry has received the funding request for the Mobile Access Project and like many funding requests from many other groups it is being reviewed.”

The MAP van costs $250,000 a year.

The Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society also has a needle exchange van that collects “bad date” reports, but they run from 7am to 2am, while the MAP van operates from 10:30pm to 5:30am.

“They actually are just great people to talk to,” said Geri. “Some of them have been in the same situation as us. It’s not someone who has no idea what’s going on.”

She pointed out that most of the sex workers on the streets have no other support.

“They have nobody but the condom vans,” she said.

Melanie Kuxdorf reports for The Tyee.

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