Downtown Eastside sex workers with nowhere to go in the middle of the night often try to sleep in the hard, upright chairs at the WISH Drop-In Centre, preferring that grim option to shelters where they can face judgment and intimidation.
“We have a huge number of woman who are unhoused, or precariously housed, or maybe trading sex for a place to stay, which is ultimately quite unsafe. So women have been using the WISH drop-in as a de facto shelter all of these years,” said Mebrat Beyene, executive director of WISH, which for nearly four decades has worked to improve the health and safety of street-based sex workers in Vancouver.
The organization has long lobbied to run a supportive place where sex workers can get a proper sleep and it’s taken the COVID-19 global health crisis for WISH to finally get its wish. It is about to open Canada’s first emergency shelter for cis, trans or two-spirit women engaged in the sex trade, thanks to government funding made available in response to the pandemic.
“Once again, something horrible has to happen before all of the advocacy that we are diligently making springs into action,” Beyene said. “It’s a very frustrating pattern. And in sort of a perverse way, COVID has allowed us to put in the programs and services that were desperately needed before COVID.”
The shelter, which is scheduled to open in four to six weeks, is unique, Beyene said, because its 23 beds and other services will be open 24/7 to address the particular needs of these women, whooften sleep during the day and work at night.
“That whole flipped schedule means services are never available when they are out and about,” she said. “And if its super quiet — some of that dead zone from 2 or 3 a.m. to about 5:30, 6 a.m. — it can be very dangerous to not be working and to be out standing on a corner with no (community) spaces to go to.”
The new facility will also have a harm-reduction approach to the residents’ jobs.
“It’s not a space where there’s any requirement to exit the sex-trade, or any sense of rescuing anyone from sex work. Most of the women we see are trading sex within a context of consent, a context of choice. But a lot are also resorting to it because of poverty, and because of a lack of other opportunities,” she said. “We will recognize and value the choices that they’ve made.”
There are 10 sleeping areas bordered by wooden partitions, each with two physically-distanced single beds and two small tables, where women can stay until they find more permanent housing. A separate area has three cordoned-off spaces for women with COVID symptoms or who need an emergency place to crash.
The old building where the shelter will be located is owned by the city of Vancouver, which paid for the renovations and is charging WISH “nominal rent,” a spokeswoman said. The provincial government is a partner in the project and will provide operating funding, but additional details were not available because of the election.
The shelter will also offer necessities that these street-entrenched women can’t always access: Laundry, showers, storage lockers, a living room with a TV, a smaller quiet area, and takeout meals from WISH’s drop-in next door. On the patio is a 24/7 outdoor safe-respite site opened during COVID, which has portable washrooms, picnic tables under tents, and an area to use substances while being observed by “peer witnessers” who have access to harm-reduction supplies.
The shelter’s round-the-clock staff will be equipped to respond to not just the COVID pandemic, but also the deadly opioid overdose crisis.
The COVID-related funding for the shelter is only for a year, but Beyene is determined to make it a permanent operation and, ideally, expand it at a larger location. She hopes other improvements made with temporary COVID funding, such as the outdoor respite site, will also be able to continue.
“Because of COVID, windows opened,” she said. “It’s been an overwhelming amount of programs and services that we’ve been able to introduce that we are going to work so hard to make sure are not clawed back when things go back to ‘normal.'”
Published on: September 29, 2020
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