The road to street prosititution is often dirty and mired with abuse from a young age.
An inner-city youth program in Saskatoon has become a refuge for children and teens being pressured and often forced into the sex trade.
"Anyone who wanted to could drive through Riversdale and Pleasant Hill and find girls who are as young as 11 working the streets on any given night," said Chris Randall, a program coordinator of Streetforce at City Centre Church in Saskatoon.
During an average week between 30 and 40 percent of girls that show up to the drop-in centre have been prositituted at some point, Randall said.
"We provide a safe place for them and we won't allow people who are pimping them to come in through our door," he said.
Stories where children are being sold to an old man for merely a case of beer are all too common.
One night the centre received a frantic phone call from Sara, the 13-year-old was in tears, repeatedly saying she was in trouble and needed help, said Randall. According to Randall, the girl spilled out details how her estranged aunt had shown up at the house. She hadn't seen the woman for several years, but vividly remembers being forced into sexual acts with men to pay for her drug habit.
"Sarah's mom had a lot of addiction issues, a lot of alcohol issues and was unaware that her aunt was pimping her out for drug money,' Randall said.
Streetforce staff members were sent to the home to pick up Sarah and her younger brother.
"In these kind of situations we really focus on youth-led decision making. We can't immediately call the cops or social services because if we did, a lot of these youth wouldn't trust us to come to when they had needs," Randall said, noting that if a person is currently being victimized they obviously contact the proper authorities.
They were able to find Sarah a safe place at another relative's house in the city. She stayed there for a week until her aunt skipped town. Randall and other workers checked in on her every day to make sure she had food and was getting to school.
In the eight years of living and working in the inner city program, Randall has seen it all. Knives and machetes have been pulled on him -- gangs have had his car windows smashed. And countless young girls get pregnant from either their pimps or a john.
"A lot of times the only way a girl can leave working the streets, especially if she's been forced into it by either family members or a gang, is through getting pregnant," Randall said.
"I've never met anyone working the streets that want to be doing that," Randall said.
While there are still issues, Egadz, another centre for at-risk youth in Saskatoon, has seen its statistics on youth in the sex trade improve in recent years.
While sitting in his cramped office, Don Meikle, a life-long outreach worker with non-profit, flips through dozens of folders. He notes that in 1993 they were seeing children as young as seven working the streets and less than ten years ago there were hundreds of kids out there under the age of 18.
"We as a community have worked really hard to take back our kids," Meikle said.
Today, representatives from addiction services, mental health, education and the vice unit gather once a month for a sexual exploitation intervention working group.
They identify kids with patterns that put them at risk, youth are given ownership of their own action plan, Meikle said. Some will seek treatment out of the province others simply want kick boxing lessons that they could never afford.
By starting to pull out the kids they really want out, it frees up resources and lowers the numbers to help the kids who are deeper in, Meikle said.
In his 20 years of working with disadvantaged youth, he has never had anyone say they like what they do when it comes to the sex trade.
The vice unit in Saskatoon sees prostitutes as young as 12 and over 30, but most women working stroll, fall between 19 and 25 years old.
2012-07-09- Ashley Wills