Monday, September 02, 2013

Dwindling services for sex workers tells grim story in the post-Pickton years

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: 

The first few weeks at PEERS I was a closed-off and very detached person. I would freeze with anxiety just from being around people. As time went on I felt more and more safe and started to wake up every morning excited to go to class. I made friends. My life today is so much better and I have my children back and am free from drugs.

When I learned the program was closing, at first I was in shock, then a little disturbed and upset and worried and wondering what I was going to do to keep myself in routine. Worried that my depression will set in without having some routine and friendship I have through PEERS. This is one of the best programs I have ever been to – and I have been to a lot. This program is a form of treatment that works!!!
I am a person with mental illness. I am on permanent disability. PEERS is the only program that I actually fit in and am accepted in, as quirky and different as I am. I do not use drugs or really party. PEERS helps me find me. It also helps me learn. These are some things that I have personally learned at PEERS: Treat people the way you want to be treated; any behaviours that I have that need to be changed to better myself and I don’t change are insane behaviours. They taught me respect of myself and others. I learned communication skills and skills to express my feelings. I also learn about patterns and what I can do to change them. Identifying our problems is the key that allows us to change.
With [Elements] closing, how can I learn to change and grow when I do not fit in any other program? PEERS is a unique program that turns no one away, even when no one else wants you. These staff members are special and unique and deal with many people on a broad spectrum of issues, most having mental health issues.

Every time I have come [to this program] since before it has been closing, I been really sad. I feel different about PEERS. Also it was a good place to vent. It helped me with problems and finished my probation order to come here. I really sad that I won’t be able to come here for the great food and company. Plus it help me get my Wal-Mart cards to get food at the end of the month. Please think about not closing the Elements program.

I am [age removed to protect anonymity] years old and am strong and healthy. I have PEERS to thank for that. Three years ago ago as a vulnerable escort, I was a victim of domestic abuse, sexual violence and was doing sex work 70 hours a week. I was broken. Sent from Victim Services, I made an intake appointment to begin attending PEERS. I was so nervous, I was afraid of being judged. Then I met Sarah. She was the counsellor and intake worker. She was very comforting and reassuring. I applied for Elements. I was told it was a program to support me while I was in the sex trade as well as help me transition out of it. I was reassured that the women were very welcoming and that everything shared in Elements was confidential.
    The Elements program changed my life! Meeting other woman who had quit working in the sex trade really motivated me. The structure of coming to classes really helped me. Through work sheets, check-in and counsellor-led classes, I worked through my trauma and addiction. I found the group setting really helped me feel a part of something. Hearing women’s stories that were similar to mine, I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew my feelings were normal. Us girls in Elements became like a family. We consoled while maintaining healthy boundaries. PEERS taught me boundaries.
    In the past, I had been through lots of therapy. I found I didn’t get the same kind of healing. I couldn’t open up the same as being at PEERS. At PEERS, like the name, everyone is a peer. I knew that the counsellors and other women, clients or staff had “been there, done that.” It was the first time ever I had felt understood.
    PEERS helped me to recover from my post-traumatic stress disorder. The counsellors helped me work it out and walked me through the court process. They also came with me to court. When I was afraid to leave my home, a counsellor transported me to and from PEERS to keep me safe.
    PEERS not only helped me with my emotional needs, but also my physical. I was taught safety precautions to keep me free from STDs and unsafe clients. They provided me with a “black list” of all dangerous clients to avoid. They also provided me with a female doctor. Dr. Cunningham made STD tests and other checkups comfortable and thorough. She never rushed me, and I felt safe in the comfort of PEERS.
    PEERS always provided basic needs – a nutritious hot meal daily and when I didn’t have groceries or the money to buy them, PEERS would send me home with a care package.
    Some of my fondest memories are of Beauty Day. I always looked forward to Friday, Beauty Day. We girls were pampered, making us feel beautiful and helping our self-esteem. We would receive haircuts, manicures and massages. All of these were done by professionals. I was also welcome to help myself to the clothing room. To this day, most of my closet consists of clothing from that clothing room.
    Today I think of all the skills and abilities I have learned and taken from PEERS, and they help me each day. At PEERS I attended poetry classes, where my poems were published in two books. It helped my self-esteem enormously. I also learned yoga and knitting, which will help me for the rest of my life. They help me get through the tough times.
    To whoever reads this, I hope you have a better understanding of the importance of PEERS. PEERS has saved my life. I am distraught that my safe haven is being taken from me. I need PEERS. The love, support, safety and resource is a necessity for Victoria.


Unknown said...

this is a sad day. I could almost cry when I think of all the community social programs that have either had to severly reduce their programs or have disappeared completely. Shame on you Gorden Campbell, Christy Clark and Steven Harper.

Turtle Chernish said...

I cannot believe how badly our Society needs change, yet rejects all aspects of it which are not immediately gratifying (for their particular desires.)They'd rather have squabbles to shake about like little Terriers than face something as important as life-saving programs. May they bow their heads in disgrace!

Yvonne Owens said...

This is an utter tragedy. I remember Janet Rabinowitch and the early core of this sterling resource for victimized, socially/mentally/sexually/emotionally and physically abused women and girls. How can we let this close? It's like saying that the statistically greatest human rights abuse on the planet, the objectification, sexual exploitation and commodification of women and girls, doesn't matter!

judy lightwater said...

Thank you for this insight and
for the testimonials. Yes,
who thought we'd come to this after
all the women who have been
killed and disappeared from the
streets and highways of BC.
Best to you and Paul on your Honduran adventure.
Judy Lightwater said... offers personal loans singapore. Are you looking for personal loan services in Singapore so contact us.

John said...

Terrific topic. I like it..............
Funeral programs to memorial programs are gaining popularity because they provide grievers with another way of memorializing