It's very nearly nine years to the day since I jumped out of my comfortable life as a journalist and took up a job heading a small grassroots organization for sex workers. Many things have changed since then, but PEERS Victoria is never far from my heart no matter what else is going on for me.
I could write a book about the things that astonished me, informed me and bowled me over in those three years as executive director of PEERS. There was so much to learn, not the least of which was how to live with an unwieldy new performance-based contract with the province that had replaced the core funding that PEERS had received up to that point.
The third generation of that contract is what has turned out to be PEERS' undoing. The organization announced this week that it just can't make a go of it anymore in its contract with the Ministry of Social Development, and is having to give up its daytime drop-in and its daily groups for sex workers seeking change in their lives.
A sad development, yes. A terrible thing to happen for vulnerable, stigmatized people who often won't access other services because they're afraid of being judged. But as one of the many people who have tried to make various forms of that blasted provincial contract work over the past decade, the only thing that surprises me about this turn of events is that PEERS actually managed to make the contract work for as long as it did.
In its first manifestation, during my time at PEERS, the contract was extremely difficult but still possible, especially given that the contract manager on the government side was willing to trust the organization and put a little stretch in the rules to accommodate the vast number of barriers that sex workers are facing when they first walk through the doors at PEERS.
But my creativity was still tested to the max trying to make that contract work, because it was based on PEERS running a pre-employment training program when the reality was that the people we were working with were still trying to struggle out of serious addictions, critical mental-health issues, poverty, housing problems and violence. Under the contract, we had six months to get those people ship-shape and either into the "square" job market, taking further job training at another agency, or attending college or university. That simply wasn't possible.
Still, we did manage to squeeze enough money out of the contract to offer a pretty good program. But in the second- and third generations of the contract, which came along after I left, the money got tougher and tougher to access for PEERS, and for any of the non-profits serving people with complex and multiple barriers.
This last contract iteration, which came into effect in the spring of 2012, is a fee-for-service model that doesn't pay for anything unless it can be delivered as a billable service. So any interaction with clients either had to be reinterpreted as a billable service - a terrible fit with a peer-led organization that knows a slow and gradual approach is the only thing that works - or go unfunded. The contract also has complicated and heavy reporting requirements that eat up much (unfunded) administrative time.
It pays poorly to boot, and required for the first time that PEERS give up being a direct provider and instead become a sub-contractor. That change has prohibited PEERS from having contact with government contract managers or doing any lobbying about the problems of the contract.
Like I say, it was only a matter of time until everything went sideways. And now it has. Fortunately, PEERS continues to have other funding for its day and night outreach services, but the drop-in space that was such a vital support t is gone. So are the daytime programs, which not only served to help clients start working through their many challenges but also as a de facto detox for people who desperately needed a structured environment to be able to stop using drugs and alcohol.
And so it's a sad day. One more service gone for marginalized, vulnerable people trying to get their lives together. One more service gone for sex workers, who have already lost PEERS Vancouver and other sex-worker-specific supports as a result of the provincial and federal governments' continuing withdrawal from community social services.
PEERS will survive, of course. It always does. This time returning to its roots as an outreach service might even be good in a way. But who could have imagined in the hysteria of the Pickton trial just seven years ago that where it would take us would be to a time with even fewer services for sex workers? Who could imagine that not only would we ignore the recommendations of the Pickton inquiry, we would retreat even further from doing anything helpful for the women we seemingly only care about when they turn up dead?
The following are just a few of the reactions from PEERS clients after learning that the drop-in and Elements are gone. And if there's anything you can do to change any of this, please do.
From the clients: