Prostitutes form co-op
Every week in Vancouver, a bad date sheet is put together by social service agencies and distributed to prostitutes, informing them of new beatings, rapes, kidnappings or robberies committed against people working in the Downtown Eastside.
On average, about eight incidents are reported a week.
It's a number that doesn't sit well with Kate Gibson, executive director of WISH, a drop-in centre for survival-sex workers, especially since she says only five to 10 per cent of bad dates are brought to their attention.
"Women don't report them because then they have to relive them; they have to go through the whole thing again," she said. "For some women it's just unbearable."
In her four years at WISH, Gibson hasn't seen many changes made to protect sex workers against bad dates, much less the confinement of drug addiction or stigmatization by society. All these factors make it very hard for women to try to leave the sex trade.
The wave of media attention that came with the trial of serial killer Robert Pickton, who used the Downtown Eastside as a hunting ground, didn't do much to help the neighbourhood or its residents.
Pickton was convicted Dec. 9 of murdering six women all known to sell sex on the streets, and he was sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 25 years. He faces trial on 20 more first-degree murder counts in 2008.
In order for things to start improving, Gibson said survival-sex workers, who are often addicted to drugs, need treatment on demand. If someone wants to try to kick their addiction, they shouldn't be made to wait days or even weeks for a chance to do so.
"You're not striking while the iron's hot," she said.
Gibson said the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, which provides some social services, is looking to improve that with a hotline that arranges services for addicts. But it will be some time before things are in order.
A lack of supported housing for women is also a lingering problem. Social workers say that in order to have stability, a person needs a safe space to live.
Jody Paterson worked as executive director at the Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society, or PEERS, in Victoria. She's now in the process of trying to open a co-op brothel run and used by sex-trade workers.
A similar effort is being made in Vancouver.
Women who work outside on the street are the most marginalized, so addicted to drugs their gut instinct fails to kick in when choosing a date, she said. Once that instinct is gone, women will often find themselves in dangerous situations.
"It's the perfect environment for a killer," she said.
Paterson wants to open the facility as an escort agency, which is legal. But she said ultimately the Criminal Code would have to change in order for prostitution to be a less-shrouded industry.
"That is a long, long battle, especially with the current government," she said.