Vancouver: Cutting off funding for street prostitute van is unconscionable
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

It’s common to hear politicians at all levels of government speak sympathetically about the plight of prostitutes who work on street. But doing something about their plight is another thing entirely.

We know that the 20 per cent of prostitutes who work the street are in far more danger than the 80 per cent who work in escort agencies or out of apartments or hotels. Indeed, almost every one of the more than 100 prostitutes murdered in British Columbia in the past two decades has been a street worker.

We also know that street workers tend to be among the lowest functioning prostitutes, as many have endured horrific abuse and are frequently battling addictions and psychiatric illnesses.

Consequently, we hear politicians speak about how we need to provide better services for such women, including exit services to help them leave life on the street.

Yet exit programs remain scarce, and mental health and addiction services are still inadequate. So despite the rhetoric, “survival” sex workers — those who must sell their bodies to survive — remain on the street.

And that means the few services that offer them a minimum of protection become all-important. Services like the Mobile Access Project, a van that roams the streets and back alleys of Vancouver between 10.30 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., offering street workers refreshments, condoms, needles, information and protection.

Perhaps we should say the van “roamed” the streets, because it is no more. Thanks to the B.C. government’s decision not to renew funding for the project, which is run by the Women’s Information and Safe House (WISH) and Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education Society (PACE), the van no longer takes to the streets.

This means that during the hours when many of the most vulnerable prostitutes work, and are therefore in the most danger, there will be no services available at all.

This is tremendously unfortunate, given that the van would, among other things, keep records of missing women and of “bad dates” — street slang for being assaulted or abused on the job.

The project would also supply police and social service agencies with information about these events, which means it could well have saved the lives of many women.

And it is nothing short of extraordinary that the province would eliminate funding for a project like this in a city still reeling from the murders of scores of women.

The van also prevented abuse in a more direct way: According to an evaluation of the project, 16 per cent of van users said the van’s presence prevented them from being assaulted.

The project has also helped prevent the spread of blood borne infections like HIV and Hepatitis C, as it distributed condoms and clean needles, while collecting used ones. And given the tremendous cost of treating even one such infection, the van clearly proved its cost-effectiveness.

Finally, regarding exit strategies — the project happens to be one of the few that provides work experience for street prostitutes, as it hired former prostitutes to work with those who are still on the street.

Hence, if we’re really interested in helping vulnerable women leave the street, the van should be among our highest priorities.

To be sure, governments everywhere are under significant financial pressure, and must carefully choose what projects to fund.

But to eliminate funding for a program that is cost-effective — and cost-averting — is unwise, to say the least. And to eliminate funding for a cost-effective program that saves and improves lives is unconscionable.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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