• 04

    February 2016

    POSSIBLE: Yvonne's Journey leads to Sex Trade on My Terms


    Yvonne's journey leads to Sex Trade On My Terms

    By Cheryl Clock, The Standard

    The two-storey, vinyl-sided house of her childhood is a place of good memories. There were many family dinners and games of Rummoli around the dining room table, into the early morning hours. "We'd keep pennies all year long and lose them all in Rummoli," she says.

    Her parents moved here in 1976, a year before Yvonne Steele was born. Her brother came four years later. Yvonne resented the time her mother spent with the new baby. Over the years, she would fight with her brother over stuff she can no longer remember.

    "We didn't have babysitters," she says. "We had referees."

    At the front of the house, where her mother, Rosemary Steele still lives, is a large picture window. Framed in it, looking out across the road, is Yvonne's first elementary school. Even on snow days, Rosemary made her daughter go to school.

    Years later, Rosemary would note that it takes less time to walk to the schoolyard than to descend from the second floor of their house, into the basement.

    "You actually measured that?" says Yvonne to her mom, eyebrows raised, with a weighted, somewhat mocking sigh.

    "I drove my mother insane."

    They share a laugh. Like old days.

    By her own admission, in her own words, Yvonne was a "hard, difficult child."

    But on this day, she curls up on a sofa in the living room of her childhood home, across from her mother, in a place filled with good memories.

    And she talks about the bad.

    "It's not like I woke up one day and said, 'I'm going to be a drug addict and work the streets," she says. "It's such a gradual thing."

    Yvonne has been out and clean for over two years. Long enough to begin to reassemble the pieces of her life. Short enough to still feel the pain of self-loathing and rejection, and to relate to the women who are still working the neighbourhood around Gale Crescent in St. Catharines.

    Every Wednesday night, Yvonne returns to the place she fought hard to leave.

    She volunteers with Sex Trade On My Terms, a drop-in program started by the YWCA Niagara Region a year ago, to give women who work as prostitutes a safe, non-judgemental place to warm up, get a hot meal, and talk. It's about making them feel valued, on a basic, human, woman-to-woman level, says Krystal Snider, skills development co-ordinator.

    Yvonne is like a bridge, connecting two converging worlds.

    Side by side with outreach workers, Yvonne strolls along Gale Crescent every week, easing into conversations with the handful of sex trade workers they meet. The women might make small talk. Chat about life on the street and safety concerns. And offer invitations to check out the drop-in program.

    When Yvonne, 38, was on the streets, there was no program. No safe place. Sex Trade On My Terms was needed because traditionally, shelters in Niagara don't accept women who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, says Snider. And that effectively left many women, who were not ready to commit to detox, without a safe place to find refuge.

    "That's not realistic for their lives," says Snider. "They have trauma and need to numb out in order to survive."

    Sex Trade On My Terms embraces all women, and cultivates an environment of trust, respect and self-empowerment. "If and when they're ready to make a change, that conversation can be had," says Snider.

    If they feel judged, or pressured to change, they'll be spooked away for good. "They won't return. They won't talk to you about their struggles. They won't feel safe enough to open up," she says.

    From January to August last year, 157 women participated in the program. New women show up every week, she says. While it's difficult to track all women, Snider says she's heard some have at least considered leaving the streets.

    When they come to the room inside St. Barnabas Church on Queenston Street, they might watch a movie, write in a journal, or work on a craft like making homemade soap. "It just allows them to be human," says Snider. "They're all women who are just trying to survive every day."

    And from an unrehearsed place in her life, Yvonne offers them hope.

    The journey that eventually led her to the streets is a complicated path with its beginnings in her childhood. It was there, that the seeds of worthlessness and self-loathing were planted. Her mother, says Yvonne, was one of the few people who believed in her, and always stood by her side.

    Yvonne despised the school that was framed in her living room window. She was an outcast there, unable to focus in the classroom and teased relentlessly by other children. Her mother had her transferred, but the teasing continued, then followed her into high school. She had acne. Wore dated clothes. Struggled at school. And had no friends.

    And then, alone, ostracized, void of self-worth she was taken in by a group of similarly disaffected teens at her high school who gave her something she'd never had. Acceptance.

    They were older. Smoked pot. And made her feel like she belonged.

    Yvonne had already started smoking cigarettes at 13. Adding other drugs like marijuana, acid, and alcohol was easily done.

    "I finally had a group I could hang out with that didn't pick on me," she says.

    Life events over the next years pushed Yvonne closer to the streets. At 16, she left home to live with her boyfriend. By Grade 11, she had dropped out of school and she was pregnant at 18. "I thought having a baby would make things better," she says. "The unconditional love. The purpose of living for me was to have a baby."

    She struggled to raise her daughter for two years, but in the end handed her over to a family member. (They have since reconciled, and after Yvonne returned to high school as an adult, mother and daughter graduated on the same day.)

    But back then, as life spiralled downward, Yvonne was pregnant again. Her second child was given up for adoption, as cocaine, her new drug of choice infected her life.

    "After that my life was run by drugs," she says. "I woke up just so I could get high. And that's all it was. Day in, day out, getting high."

    She severed ties with her family. Prostitution funded her drug addiction. "I didn't care what happened to me," she says. "My addiction, my survival, my need to eat, I had to do things I wasn't proud to do."

    She slept on sofas, in cars, under a bridge and on park benches. Her only human luxury, was a gym bag stuffed with socks, underwear and other clothing.

    She tried to get out a few times, but her addictions kept her hostage. When she eventually succeeded – and it's been over two years – there was no one definitive, pivotal moment, but a series of happenstances.

    When the old St. Catharines hospital closed up, business dwindled. Overall, she was tired of being treated like "dirt". She felt ready to commit to detox. And she longed to be reunited with her mother.

    "I was missing her awful," she says. "I needed to see my mom."

    Rosemary, who for a period of 10 years never saw her daughter, also never turned her away. Every knock on the door she imagined was a police officer about to tell her they'd found Yvonne's body.

    When Yvonne appeared on her mother's doorstep out of the blue one day, she didn't recognize her. "It didn't look like my little girl," says Rosemary. "She looked old and drawn."

    Now that she's clean, relapse isn't an option because, in her mind, the consequences have been elevated to lethal, she says. "The drugs are dangerous and deadly now," says Yvonne, referring to substances like fentanyl and crystal meth.

    And, for the first time in years, she has dared herself to imagine a future. She might go to college. Maybe be a social worker one day.

    But for now, every Wednesday night, she offers her time and compassion to the women who remind Yvonne of her own life.

    "Just because you're not ready to quit doesn't mean you don't deserve somewhere safe to go," she says.

    They deserve our consideration, not scorn, she says.

    "The girls don't want to be out there as much as people don't want to see them out there," says Yvonne.

    "Something happened in their life that has caused them to be out there.

    "This was not their dream when they were a little girl."


    Sex Trade On My Terms. For more information on the program that runs every Wednesday night from 6 to 11 p.m., call the YWCA Niagara Region at 905-988-3528.

    • Posted By: Cheryl Clock
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