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First Shelter for Sex Workers to Open in the Downtown Eastside

Canada’s first low-barrier shelter for women sex workers will open this fall in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.

WISH, the organization that will be running the 23-bed shelter, says this kind of shelter has been desperately needed for years.

But the need became even greater with  COVID-19 restrictions that made life worse for many people dealing with  homelessness and poverty and hit sex workers particularly hard. 

As many services ceased operating or cut  back hours and access in March, sex workers were losing income as  clients stayed away. Shelters that provided housing were closing or  reducing access. Access to meal programs was reduced.

And sex workers were facing increasingly difficult working conditions as supports were cut off.

“Sometimes women are being  detained. Sometimes women are being assaulted or raped or robbed.  Drugged, beaten,” said Mebrat Beyene, executive director of WISH. “All  of the severity of those types of reports definitely increased.”

More women turned — or returned — to sex work during the pandemic, Beyene said.

The only other shelter in Canada that  caters to sex workers is located in a suburb of Montreal, and it’s for  women who are leaving sex work.

“There are so few safe spaces for women and  gender-diverse folks in the Downtown Eastside period. And then even  fewer spaces that really cater to and are safe for sex workers,” said  Beyene.

The shelter will welcome all  self-identified women, including trans women, and will be open 24-7.  Women won’t have to leave the shelter every morning, a rule in some  shelters.

The shelter’s beds are ready, placed two to  a cubicle, but it will still take four to six weeks before the space is  ready to open. The new space is in the top floor of a building owned by  the City of Vancouver that was used by the Vancouver Police Department  for storage. Women’s organizations in the Downtown Eastside have been  eyeing it for years for use as a shelter.

It’s right next to WISH’s drop-in centre at 330 Alexander St., a space that’s already used as a makeshift shelter by many women.

To create extra space to  accommodate COVID-19 recommendations, there’s a covered outdoor area in  the alley behind the drop-in centre and a bathroom trailer that was  installed in May when many bathrooms in the neighbourhood were closed as  part of lockdown measures. Beyene said the lack of bathrooms was  particularly dehumanizing for women.

And because overdoses have also spiked this year, WISH has begun offering overdose prevention services.

During the first round of COVID-19  restrictions, organizations also had to stop accepting clothing  donations, meaning that women were showing up at the WISH drop-in centre  with nothing to change into.

The new shelter has a laundry room fitted  with three washers and three dryers. It seems like a small thing, but  Beyene and shelter manager Cassandra Pynn say it’s an important part of  keeping women safe and comfortable.

“Laundry is always a really critical piece  and in the Downtown Eastside… even if there might be laundry next  door, it might be totally overrun by men, and men they’re specifically  trying to avoid,” Beyene said.

While services for unhoused people are  mostly back up and running, there are still limitations when it comes to  the spaces people can access throughout the day to rest, get food or  use bathrooms and showers.

The Downtown Eastside has managed to avoid a  COVID-19 outbreak, but cases in the neighbourhood have been rising  since late August. Across the province, positive cases have been rising  since the summer and are now much higher than numbers seen in the spring  when B.C. briefly “flattened the curve” of cases.

“My hope is that places stay open and that  nobody’s funding is scaled back or cut it anyway,” Beyene said. “Because  as dire as that period was, it would be just so tragic if it happens  again.”

Jen St. Denis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee

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