A female sex worker could be made safer on the streets of Vancouver for $20 a year. That is the average cost of each woman helped by the van, driven by former sex-trade workers, which travels the streets of Vancouver.
The van, known as the Mobile Access Project (MAP), aims to provide services, supplies and a safe space for sex workers to rest.
Most of the van staff have had former experience in the sex industry and can relate to the women. They tell sex workers about men to avoid, provide referrals to drug treatment clinics, and let them share their stories.
Women use the service about 1,200 times each month, and receive over 8,000 condoms and 4,800 clean needles during those visits. The MAP van is run by WISH Drop-in Centre and PACE society.
For six years, the van has travelled the streets every night. Women on the streets trust the van to be there when they need it.
“When you’re cold and wet, and you’re thirsty and hungry, they hand out sandwiches and drinks,” Miss Louise, a sex worker on Kingsway, said. “If there’s a problem, they’re willing to call the police and you know, stay with you.”
Sex workers often work alone and risk their safety out on the streets. The Canadian prostitution law that bans brothels, or bawdy houses, prevents them from working in a common indoor space.
Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice struck down three prostitution laws in a September court ruling: soliciting clients; living off prostitution income; and operating bawdy houses. The court deemed the laws unconstitutional by putting sex workers in danger.
The B.C. Court of Appeal ruled in October that the same laws can be challenged in B.C.
“The legal system pushes the women to isolated places and limits their ability to use health and support services,” said Kate Shannon, director of the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
“If the prostitution laws change, sex workers can be brought indoors and made safer,” she said. “But for now, the MAP van seems to be the only way to reach the most marginalized women on the street.”
Drug treatment clinics and other services operate during the day. But women working the streets tend to be out at night and have difficulty accessing healthcare.
“Make it so that they don’t have to try and get up go outside in the daytime, and so they don’t have to feel uncomfortable interacting with a whole bunch of mainstream community members which makes them feel freaked out,” said Susan Davis, a sex worker of 24 years.
Most prostitution-related services are concentrated in the Downtown Eastside and leave out many who work in other areas. But it is even difficult for those working in downtown to get help.
“You know, St. Paul’s Hospital, it might as well be Mars,” said Kate Gibson, executive director of WISH.
“If you’re a drug user, it means you’re going to weigh out going to the hospital and going into withdrawal. One will probably win out over the other, and it’ll probably be [avoiding] withdrawal.”
Making a difference
In August 2009, the van received funding of $750,000 over three years. The money helps the van provide more than just basic supplies to the women.
“It is many things, but it is also a set of eyes on the street,” Gibson said. “And don’t think for a minute that bad guys and pimps don’t know the van’s out, because they do.”
Women working on the streets are among the most vulnerable. Many have been murdered or reported missing, including over 60 women who are the subject of the Missing Women inquiry. The inquiry is reviewing how the police response allowed convicted serial killer Robert Pickton to continue his killing of over 20 sex workers.
Evidence shows the van makes a difference for women on the streets.
A study published in the October issue of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, found sex workers who used the MAP van between 2006 and 2008 were four times more likely to choose inpatient addiction treatment, compared to those who didn’t.
The referrals to drug treatment programs also have effects that are not obvious.
“Women always say to each other not to work high, and it’s because they’re so vulnerable,” Gibson said.
“If they‘re not accessing drug treatment at all, and they’re drug users, they’re definitely way more vulnerable because their decision making abilities are impaired if they’re high or if they’re desperate.”