Construction on the DTES is Endangering Trans Sex Workers

Gentrification putting trans sex workers at risk, study by KPU prof finds

Criminology professor Tara Lyons smiles for the camera. She recently contributed to a study that examines the impact of construction and gentrification on transsex workers. (Submitted Photo/Tara Lyons)

Recent construction on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has endangered trans sex workers by forcing them into more dangerous and inhospitable locations.

Criminology Professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Tara Lyons, contributed to a study published this month by the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS examining the impact of construction and gentrification on transsex workers. Interviews with 33 individuals—including those who identify as transsexual, genderqueer, and two-spirit—and ethnographic walks through their work environment were held as a part of the study, determining that, “within a criminalized context, construction and gentrification enhanced vulnerabilities to violence and harassment from police and residents,” as written in the study’s abstract.

“Environmental and structural changes to the work environment were found to (1) increase vulnerabilities to client violence by disrupting traffic patterns, (2) influence policing practices, and (3) to displace trans sex workers through gentrification processes,” reads the introduction. “Participants reported that their working conditions were increasingly unsafe because of overlapping structural vulnerabilities of construction activity (e.g. decreased client traffic), criminalization of sex work (e.g. police harassment) and gentrification (e.g. resident complaints).”

The participants interviewed were between the ages of 23 and 52. Those with Indigenous ancestry made up 70 per cent of interviewees and 79 per cent engaged in sex work during the time of study, with 73 per cent of those soliciting in outdoor environments.

The research done has not been concluded and will continue to develop well into the future. Lyons continues to conduct the research despite being on maternity leave at KPU.

“With the work that we did with trans folks, there wasn’t anything [research-based] that was specific to the area, which is why I started doing interviews to figure out what was going on,” says Lyons, bouncing her baby on her lap from the East Cafe on East Hastings Street. “And our work is also unique because we have two-spirit participants.”

She describes the interview process as painful at some times and full of joy at others, but generally feels “grateful to work with really great people who were willing to open up to me and be a part of the research.” Now, she calls many of the participants friends.

During the ethnographic walks that Lyons facilitated, witnessing workers being threatened with loitering tickets by authorities and seeing the condition of the work environment contributed to the findings of the study, as did having trans workers personally review the data before it was published.

She also observed the relationship between the trans sex workers in the Downtown Eastside and the surrounding residents and businesses, describing it as “tense.” Study participants relayed feelings of isolation and unfriendliness. Complaints were made about trans workers in the area. Gates were put up near hangers so that those sleeping on the streets could not use them as shelter, and police and security guards ushered workers away from the trusted routes they had once regularly used to find customers.

“The folks that worked down there have generally worked there a long time. It’s a pretty established work environment—or it was—and it’s a community. This is how gentrification works,” says Lyons. “Then other people move in and feel like they’re the first and that it’s their community.

“The people who live in the community should be trying to create a relationship with the people who already there—and the businesses as well.”

The next stages of the ethnographic research will focus more heavily on the perspectives and actions of the businesses and individuals living alongside the gentrified Downtown Eastside sex workers.

“These changes—gentrification, construction, doing massive road work without consultation with the folks working down there—are frankly dangerous and irresponsible,” Lyons says. “Those are not conditions that anyone, sex worker or non-sex worker, should have to be in.”