Vancouver’s WISH Drop-In Centre Society opening Canada’s first 24/7 shelter for sex workers

The shelter will provide beds, a laundry facility, showers and a safe space for sex workers

24/7 Sex Worker Shelter. (Submitted by WISH Drop-In Centre)

The WISH Drop-In Centre Society is opening a 24/7 shelter in Vancouver for sex workers, and the CBC, stated that it’s the first of its kind in Vancouver and Canada.

According to the Executive Director of the WISH Drop-In Centre Society, Mebrat Beyene, WISH  has been around for over 36 years, and they support women who are involved in street-based sex work.

Their goal is to “improve the health, safety and well-being of women who are involved in Vancouver’s street-based sex trade.”

Eighty per cent of the women they support are homeless or with unsteady housing, and half of them are Indigenous.

WISH runs a drop-in centre which currently provides meals, safety supplies, toiletries, showers, clothing, and access to nurse practitioners to former and current sex workers.

The centre also provides emotional, physical, and mental support.

WISH Drop-In Centre Society hosts various other services and programs like the Mobile Access Project (MAP), a supportive employment program, an Aboriginal Health and Safety program, a learning centre, music therapy, and a health clinic.

The MAP is primarily run through a van that goes through the city and offers outreach and harm reduction supplies to individuals on the streets.

Through their Transitions program, WISH “supports women in moving to safer sex work, or to reduce their reliance on sex work, or to eventually exiting altogether.”

The program gives women individual support, employment and pre-employment support, cultural and social creative activities, and education and training support.

Beyene says street-based sex work is the most dangerous form of sex work and gives workers the least amount of choice.

As sex workers can often have difficulties seeking medical services, the WISH Health Clinic makes sure workers have access to safe healthcare. The clinic has nurse practitioners come in twice a week from B.C. Women’s Hospital and Health Centre, and the clinic is open to women only.

Sex workers also face a lot of barriers when it comes to accessing a shelter. Many shelters lack space and curfews, which leaves many sex workers sleeping in the streets or other public spaces.

Beyene says safe spaces for women and gender diverse folks in the Downtown Eastside was always a challenge. She says a few spaces like the Downtown Eastside Women Centre and Atira Women’s Society offer services.

Other spaces are co-ed, and they include a lot of men, which can sometimes make it an unsafe place for women.

“For those that are trading sex, what we know is they’re doing so within a context of poverty, and they’re doing so within a context of either being completely unhoused or being precariously housed,” Beyene says.

She adds that some sex workers may be in dangerous or abusive relationships, trading sex for accommodations, or that they may be in unsafe housing situations.

“Housing options in the Downtown Eastside are already poor and lacking, and for those that depend on trading sex, their level of vulnerability and potential for exploitation is even higher,” she says.

Beyene says that providing a safe space with no strings attached can significantly reduce health and safety concerns and gives sex-workers access to more choices.

WISH Drop-In Centre Society will give sex workers round-the-clock access to a safe space, and Beyene says the shelter does not require anyone to leave the sex trade.

The planned shelter will include 23 beds, three of which will be isolation beds. Beyene says these beds will be used for people with COVID-like symptoms who have nowhere else to go.

The shelter will also have on-site accommodations like a laundry facility and showers.

There is no fixed length on the time sex workers can stay at the shelter. Beyene says while the shelter is not a full home, it gives WISH more opportunity to work with the residents on their longer-term housing solution.

“We’re anticipating that some folks may stay for a few weeks, and others might stay for months,” says Beyene.

The laws around sex work in Canada make it hard for sex workers to seek safety and assistance. According to the federal Department of Justice, Bill C-36 was created to handle “prostitution as a form of sexual exploitation that disproportionately impacts women and girls.”

The point of the bill is to “protect those who sell their own sexual services, protect communities, and especially children, from the harms caused by prostitution, and reduce the demand for prostitution and its incidence.”

However, many advocates for the rights of sex workers have argued that the bill puts sex workers in danger by limiting how they can work.

According to Pivot Legal Society, the laws from Bill C-36 was actually projected to put sex workers in “harm’s way by limiting their ability to negotiate with clients, communicate about the nature of their services, work with others, and establish safer indoor venues.”

Sex workers also face stigma with their profession, and it’s hard for them to access many resources.

Immigrant and migrant sex workers also face barriers, and those can be a little more complex.

According to an emailed statement from SWAN Vancouver, even if Canada decriminalized sex work entirely, “migrant women who engage in sex work would remain completely criminalized because of Canada’s immigration prohibitions on sex work.”

SWAN stands for Supporting Women’s Alternatives Network, a charitable organization that works and advocates for migrant and immigrant women “engaged in indoor sex work.”

Their 2019/2020 annual report says that the new laws surrounding sex work, antitrafficking, and immigration has made it difficult for immigrant and migrant women to access proper healthcare.

The report also shows more barriers for immigrant and migrant women during the pandemic and the “major spike in anti-Asian racism.”

SWAN Vancouver has helped workers through the pandemic by providing them with personal protective equipment, bilingual resources, letting workers know about their rights and options for their finances.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how tough it is for sex workers to access assistance. Many workers were not eligible for the CERB benefits because they’re unable to file taxes due to fears surrounding their work.

Kerry Porth, Sex Work Policy Consultant at Pivot Legal Society, says sex workers were impacted by COVID and had to stop working, and due to the lack of funding by the government, they had no way of making a living.

“One thing [the government can] do is find low barrier ways to providing relief funding to sex workers,” says Porth.

Porth also wants the government to provide funding to sex work support organizations.

Advocates for sex workers have asked for the government to give sex workers access to supplementary income through CERB. They have also asked for sex workers to be given better access to medical and social service assistance.

The criminalization of sex work can add to more obstacles for sex workers. Amnesty International reports that “sex works are often excluded from law and policy that protects and respects their rights as workers and as humans.”

So advocates are asking for decriminalization.

They believe that the criminalization of sex work generates more “isolation” for those who don’t have the option to stop working. They also believe that criminalization makes it hard for sex workers to go to the police when facing violence and harassment. This is due to the fears and laws surrounding their work.

Pivot Legal Society has been campaigning for the decriminalization of sex work in Canada for years.

Porth says Pivot has been preparing to review the current sex worker’s laws in Canada, which was expected to be done last December, however, due to the pandemic it has been delayed.

Porth wants the government to “repeal the sex work laws because they make it difficult for sex workers to work safely.”

Porth says the new shelter run by WISH is something sex workers have wanted for many years. She hopes when people understand the purpose of the shelter, it will normalize the activities of the people staying at the shelter and reduce stigma in a small way.

Beyene says WISH’s long-term goal is to create a standalone permanent shelter, adding that they have received a lot of positive feedback to the news of the upcoming shelter.

“We really were quite astounded by how celebratory all the messages are. It made it feel like a widespread community achievement, and it certainly is,” she says.

“I hope it means that we’re seeing a bit of a breaking down of the considerable stigma facing sex work and sex workers.”