Canada’s first shelter exclusively for sex workers opened its doors on Monday in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The temporary shelter, run by WISH, a support organization for women and gender diverse folks in the street-based sex trade, operates 24/7 and offers on-site laundry, washrooms, hot showers, a lounging area, and 23 beds, three of which are reserved for COVID-related isolation.
The new shelter also shares a backlot with WISH’s long standing drop-in centre, where clients can meet with nurse practitioners and access meals, among other programs. A safe respite site is also available.
WISH executive director Mebrat Beyene told VICE News the organization had been hoping to unveil a permanent shelter for sex workers, but the pandemic changed their plans. Instead, WISH opened a temporary emergency shelter, in partnership with BC Housing and the city, with plans to renew it in a year.
The group hopes to introduce a permanent shelter eventually, Beyene said.
“Before COVID we had so many people who used our drop-in as a de facto shelter, so we knew there was a need for quite a while,” Beyene said. “With COVID, there is a deep exacerbation of pre-existing crises that we see in the Downtown Eastside and crises of sex workers we support.”
Crises include inadequate housing, poverty, gender-based violence, and a worsening and poisoned drug supply, Beyene said. In British Columbia, way more people are dying of overdoses than COVID-19, and 2020 is shaping up to be the worst year for overdose deaths on record across Canada. More than 1,200 people have died from drug overdoses in the first nine months of 2020 in B.C. alone.
According to WISH’s website, 80 percent of the women they support are struggling with homelessness, half are Indigenous, and all live in poverty.
Beyene said WISH consulted nearly 100 sex workers who were already benefiting from the organization’s services.
Most of them said they need safe spaces that feel homey, offer laundry, accommodate sporadic working hours, have secure storage for belongings, and are run by sex worker advocacy organizations like WISH that fight stigma targeting their jobs, Beyene said.
“It’s more than just accepting sex work, but enveloping in sex worker rights and all harm reduction approaches that are explicitly and exclusively for sex workers,” she said.
Shelters exclusive to shelters are rare. Beyene said she hasn’t stumbled upon many in North America through her research, but there might be one in Mexico.
Sex work is effectively criminalized in Canada. But Vancouver has had policing guidelines in place for more than five years that encourage officers to prioritize sex worker safety over criminalization. The general philosophy, according to the guidelines, is that police enforcement should be a last resort.
Beyene said officers who aren’t familiar with the ethos will surveil and overpolice sex workers in the city. But officers rarely, if ever, appear at WISH’s facilities. When they do, support workers deal with the police directly, so sex workers don’t have to, she said.
“We have enough of a relationship that it’s known: this is a safe space for women,” Beyene said.
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