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Canada’s First Shelter for Sex Workers Provides a ‘Sanctuary’

It’s operated at capacity since it opened in November, and more spaces are desperately needed.

Jen St. Denis 17 May

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

In December 2020, Christine was living in a single-room occupancy hotel in the Downtown Eastside with a partner who had severe mental illness and had become abusive.

Their tiny room felt like a “hole in the wall,” and the building — a privately-owned and operated SRO on East Hastings Street — was filthy and dangerous, she said.

“I just had to get out of there,” she said. “I came to a point where I could not stand it any longer.”

Christine is one of 23 women who’ve been able to find refuge at a new shelter that opened in the fall of 2020 in the Downtown Eastside. It’s operated by WISH, an organization that supports sex workers in Vancouver. (The Tyee agreed not to use Christine’s real name because of safety concerns.)

The shelter is unique in Canada: the only other shelter in the country that caters to sex workers is located in a suburb of Montreal, and it’s for women who are leaving sex work.

Christine said she was used to coming to a drop-in space at WISH, and when the shelter opened in November she considered moving in right away. But it would still be a couple of months before she made the leap to get out the abusive relationship she was in at the SRO.

“I’m not threatened here — I was in a threatening situation, I didn’t feel safe,” Christine said.

“I was being robbed and humiliated, all kinds of terrible things. Here I’ve found some calm and peace that I can regroup, and try to take a breath and start over again.”

Christine’s number one goal is to find better housing, because she doesn’t want to live in an SRO hotel anymore. It’s a search that could take a long time, but Christine says living in the WISH shelter means she doesn’t feel rushed to accept unsafe housing.

To underline how hard it is to find affordable housing in Vancouver, Mebrat Beyene, the executive director of WISH, said just three shelter residents have been connected with permanent housing during the six months the shelter has been operating.

Beyene said the shelter has been at capacity since it opened, and women are turned away every day. Women also use the organization’s 24-hour drop-in space to sleep, and the demand for a safe space is so great that some women also use an outdoor area that was created near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic as a safe refuge.

The shelter welcomes all self-identified women, including trans women, and is open 24-7. The shelter is located in a building owned by the City of Vancouver, and beds are located in cubicle-like spaces, with lockers for storage, accessible washrooms and showers, and a laundry room that residents can use.

One of the shelter’s beds before the space opened in November. The 23-bed shelter has been full since it opened its doors. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the risks for street-based sex workers have increased: work dried up, and women saw their incomes drop and they were less able to refuse unsafe work. Beyene said WISH staff are hearing of an increase in violence that women are experiencing while they’re working in the Downtown Eastside, and reports of “bad dates” that sex workers make to organizations like WISH are also up.

For many of the women, living in the shelter means they can have the option of turning down unsafe work or negotiating a fair price, Beyene said.

For the long term, WISH wants to build a larger, purpose-built shelter for sex workers and is in talks with BC Housing and other partners.* “The space that we’re in right now, that literally is the maximum number of beds we can safely put in,” Beyene said.

Before meeting with The Tyee, Christine said she asked the other women living in the shelter what they would like to say: what has the shelter meant to you?

“And they’ve all said the same thing: It means everything, because without it we’d be on the street or in those rooms or somewhere abusive or whatever,” she said.

“It’s a sanctuary, and of course it means everything to be in a safe, clean nice place where you can rest your head.”

*Story updated on May 18 at 9:45 a.m. to correct that WISH is in talks with BC Housing, not the City of Vancouver.  [Tyee]

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