Safe Spaces for Gender-Diverse Street-Based Sex Workers

Providing safe spaces and temporary, emergency housing to precariously housed and unhoused gender-diverse street-based sex workers.

Additional information




North America

Location: Vancouver, Canada

Organization: WISH Drop-In Centre Society

About the Wise Practice

While women make up about 47% of the Downtown Eastside community in Vancouver, B.C., this percentage is not reflected in the amount of available safe spaces, housing, shelter beds, and drop-ins in the city. There continues to be an overwhelming demand for women-only safe spaces. Communities and people who face systemic barriers, stigma and discrimination — such as street-based sex workers—face multiple barriers when trying to access services or finding housing and safe spaces. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the escalating opioid crisis, and the inequitable rates of violence and discrimination against street-based sex workers meant the community we serve needed safe spaces, now more than ever.

Based in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, WISH is on the unceded, stolen lands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) First Nations. For almost 40 years, WISH has been a refuge and an essential point of contact for street-based sex workers who have been made vulnerable due to poverty, homelessness, trauma, violence, stigma, and a lack of access to support and opportunities. Eighty percent of WISH participants are homeless, and half of them are Indigenous. All live in poverty.

Street-based sex workers can come to our nightly Drop-In Centre and Emergency Shelter 365 days per year, and find a safe place to rest, have a hot meal, shower and connect with the community. We check the safety of women working on the streets and offer harm reduction supplies through our Mobile Access Project (MAP) Van which drives across the city every night. Participants also have access to far-reaching opportunities designed to enable longer-term support, such as our Learning Centre, Supportive Employment Program and Music Therapy Program.

Indigenous women are over-represented in street-based sex work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. In support of Indigenous sex workers, WISH has been championing the Indigenous Health & Safety Program (IHSP), a culturally-relevant response to this severe trauma by providing traditional Indigenous practices that support healthy positive change and spiritual health & healing for Indigenous women involved in the sex trade.


Housing and Land Rights
Indigenous Peoples
Infrastructure & Services
Urban Spaces


Housing andLand Rights – Goal 1: Promote the development of integrated and age-and gender-responsive housing policies (NUA 32).

Infrastructure & Services – Goal 1: Promote equitable and affordable access to sustainable basic physical and social infrastructure for all, without discrimination, ensuring that these services are responsive to the rights and needs of women and girls and others that are in vulnerable situations (NUA 34, 119; SDG 6.2).

Urban Spaces – Goal 2: Provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities (SDG 11.7).

Indigenous Peoples – Goal 1: Engage indigenous peoples and local communities in the promotion and dissemination of knowledge of tangible and intangible cultural heritage (NUA 125).


Since opening day, all beds at WISH’s shelter have been consistently filled. The drop-in centre welcomes approximately 330-350 participants on average every night and day. Demand increases every year. The centre also serves approximately 9000 meals every month. Donation rooms are accessed an average of 1,800 times each month. The MAP Van serves over 800 women per month.

Thanks to the shelter, most residents have reported fewer instances of violence and, most critically, the ability to turn down potentially dangerous work. The shelter has allowed precariously housed and unhoused women in the sex trade to have a place to temporarily call home while continuing to access all the programs, services, and wraparound supports that WISH has to offer.


In October 2020, WISH opened the doors to Canada’s first-ever 24/7 temporary emergency shelter for street-based sex workers. Due to the shelter operating at capacity every single day, an average of 12 women continue to routinely use the drop-in as their primary place to safely sleep each night. Every night, our 24/7 outdoor safe respite area is also routinely used as a de facto shelter space by a number of street-based sex workers.

Lessons Learned

Because of COVID-19, preexisting crises including poverty, violence, toxic drug supply and lack of safe spaces have been exacerbated. Spaces like the shelter and our 24/7 safe respite area continue to be critical—now more than ever. The space has also highlighted, once again, the importance of co-locating programs and services to meet participants where they are at and adapting to the context that people are already in.

Resources and More Information

  1. WISH Shelter
  2. WISH-At-A-Glance 2020
  3. A Year Of Navigating Multiple Crises – Annual Report 2020-2021


Published: August 3, 2021