Safe Spaces for Gender-Diverse Street-Based Sex Workers
To provide safe spaces and temporary, emergency housing to precariously housed and unhoused gender-diverse street-based sex workers.
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. Since opening day, all beds at WISH’s shelter have been consistently filled, the crash beds have been used more than 500 times, and more than 400 women have been turned away due to the overwhelming demand. Thanks to the shelter and 24/7 safe respite area, street-based sex workers now have a place to be and a place to sleep solidly, uninterrupted, and wake up calmly and slowly. They can enjoy a meal and relax in peace without worrying about their belongings, and away from gender-based and sexualized violence.
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).
Thanks to the shelter, most residents have reported fewer instances of violence and, most critically, the ability to turn down potentially dangerous work. Since COVID has deeply affected the amount and availability of safer, street-based sex work, residents do not have to take on dangerous work in order to secure a place to stay. It has also meant avoiding extended hours on the street with little to no viable work leading to increased vulnerability to predators and negative interactions with police. 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. Most residents reported living on the street, staying in unsafe relationships, staying in unsafe living conditions, and/or needing to trade sex for a place to stay before the shelter existed.
It’s been nine months since WISH opened the doors to Canada’s first-ever 24/7 temporary emergency shelter for street-based sex workers. Since then, we’ve seen an overwhelming demand for the space, resulting in the shelter being at capacity since opening day. Sadly, this means women are turned away from the shelter every single day. 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 defacto shelter space by a number of street-based sex workers.
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. This has been particularly crucial for our Inreach team, who are now better able to help shelter residents with medical needs, housing, referrals, legal support, income assistance, as well as emotional support.
Resources and More Information
Published: August 3, 2021