Sunday, July 27, 2008

Lessons learned from the brothel project
July 25, 2008

It’s been close to a year since I started talking publicly about wanting to open a brothel. And let me tell you, it’s been one of the most fascinating and surprising years of my life.
Brothels and escort agencies flourish in our region and right across the country, so I and my good pal Lauren Casey weren’t breaking new ground on that front with our little plan to start an escort agency with a difference. Our aim was to develop a fair and benevolent workplace for adult sex workers that also donated a share of profits to services and supports for disadvantaged workers.
As you might expect of a volunteer project taken on by two very busy women, our plans poked along at a snail’s pace for months. But in the spring we quite accidentally connected with a human dynamo of a sex worker here in Victoria, who in turn connected us with a human dynamo of an entrepreneur with experience running a Vancouver escort agency noted for being a fair and friendly place to work.
Next thing you know, things were happening - at warp speed, of course, which I’ve learned is the standard operating speed for those working in the industry.
By June, the two young women had the licensing and business requirements in hand for a Victoria agency. By July, the Web site was up and eight independent workers had signed on give the new model a try. My head’s still spinning at how quickly things came together.
Like any fledgling business, it’s still very much a work in progress. The indoor sex industry has much in common with any industry, but some significant differences as well, including finding investors willing to put their money into an enterprise that at best can be categorized as “kind of legal.”
Developing workplace policy also isn’t as simple as just following standard business practice. As just a small for-instance, consider the delicacies of a workplace drug and alcohol policy when having a drink or two with a customer is often part of the job. Given the nature of the work, it’s a fine line as well that has to be walked to ensure that no worker ever feels exploited or forced to work, yet at the same time can be counted on to show up for her shifts.
Nor is our little business donating any profits yet, or firm on when the point will come when that’s financially possible. We’re not yet a brothel, either, as that really requires either buying a place or having an open-minded landlord in terms of maintaining the discretion required to operate in the land of the quasi-legal. Independent workers generally work out of their homes anyway, and that might work better with the coalition of independents with a centralized administrative core that’s taking shape.
I could fill a book with what I’ve learned about the sex industry in recent years, and in fact think I’ll do that one day soon. Perhaps the most surprising thing has been my own shift in thinking in the past decade - from a decidedly anti-industry position to someone helping to launch a new escort service. Much to my amazement, I’m even starting to understand why men buy sex.
I know I’ve baffled some people with my newfound embrace of the industry, a position that has cost me two friends in the past year alone due to irreconcilable differences in our opinions. I’m uncomfortable and sad to find myself pitted in the media against dedicated, caring feminists for whom I’m now the enemy. Sex work is almost as notable as abortion as a polarizing issue among people who thought they knew each other.
But at the same time, I cherish the memory of a former Catholic nun who took my hand and told me that if I was taking this brothel project on, then she had to presume it was worthy. I’ve been deeply touched by the support of people from all walks of life who, regardless of whether they like that the sex industry exists, share my view that as long as it does, we might as well try to make it as safe and healthy as possible for the tens of thousands of Canadian adults who work in it.
Lauren and I have had a documentary crew following us for a year now as we worked on our project (watch for us on Global TV’s Global Currents show sometime in the spring of 2009). We’re leaving Monday to tour the brothels of New Zealand with documentary director April Parry and the Force Four production crew to see how that country is coping since legalizing brothels five years ago.
Stay tuned for my updates from afar over the next couple Fridays. I’m counting on a very interesting experience.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Drunkenness at Music Fest puts teens at major risk
July 18, 2008

As always, I had a wonderful time at Courtenay’s Island Music Fest this past weekend, and I don’t want what I’m about to say to be taken as criticism of what is truly a summer highlight for my family.
But holy moly, there was some out-of-control drinking going on up there.
There were kids drinking so hard that I suspect some of them were putting their lives at risk. They were falling-down, glassy-eyed, fumble-footed drunks. I can’t imagine the drunken coupling that went on in the teens’ sprawling, bottle-strewn campsites that wouldn’t have met the legal test of consent.
I like young people, and saw a whole lot of them at Music Fest who were there for all the right reasons and not just to drink themselves blotto in the campground. So I definitely wouldn’t want anyone thinking that I’m pointing the finger at young people in general - or even underage drinking. What actually disturbed me was not that some teens were drinking, but that they were drinking so heavily.
I saw one girl, maybe 15 or 16 years old, staggering around between the tents absolutely blasted, wearing an itsy, bitsy bikini and carrying a beer. It was 10 a.m. I couldn’t help but wonder at all the bad things that might have happened to her already.
One worried camper started bringing water to the drunken teens camped near his site, trying to help them stay hydrated as they sat drinking fearlessly for hour after hour in the hot sun.
The studies call it “binge drinking.” It’s defined as any single drinking session where you consume four or more alcoholic drinks (four for females, six for males). Not surprisingly, it’s the riskiest way to drink, and the most likely to lead to something bad happening.
Binge drinkers are five times more likely to have unprotected sex. They’re more likely to drive drunk - and cause accidents that kill people. They’re at significantly more risk of getting in trouble with police, and much more likely to get in fights. Gender matters: men are three to six times more likely than women to binge-drink.
Should a binge drinker develop hard-drinking habits that last - another known risk - he or she is looking at higher risk of more than 60 health conditions down the line: heart disease, brain damage, liver failure, cancer. Hard drinkers also risk chronic problems with sexual performance and fertility.
In other words, nothing good comes from binge-drinking. But the health stats still don’t really get at the issue that scares me most when I see kids drinking hard, which is how completely vulnerable they are at that moment to unforeseen events that could change the course of their life forever.
I drank to get drunk myself as a young teen, although I can’t recall ever being quite as blasted as some of the girls I saw last weekend. I’d put the age range of those drinking hardest at 14 to early 20s, but that’s not to say there weren’t a number of older festival-goers hammering it back as well.
Drinking is more or less sanctioned at the festival, what with a beer garden on site and a liberal alcohol policy in the campsite. Perhaps that’s something organizers will want to reflect on.
But just because you can doesn’t mean you have to, and it’s that point that requires the most thought going forward.
More than a fifth of British Columbians are occasional binge-drinkers. In terms of consumption - which is rising - Vancouver Island is second only to the Interior as the B.C. region that drinks the most. In Europe, where binge-drinking is a growing concern, a 2006 study found that 80 million Europeans were drinking at harmful levels once a week or more.
Hopefully we all know the drill on alcohol: That it slows the functions of the central nervous system; affects parts of the brain that control emotion, movement, balance, judgment and impulse; lowers people’s pain thresholds; fogs all five senses. If you’re pregnant, it wreaks havoc on the developing fetus. Too much of it and you’re dead, as a group of California teens were reminded in March when a 16-year-old pal drank herself to death at their party.
The message: Don’t binge-drink, both for your sake and for that of whatever young kid is noticing how you knock them back and concluding that’s the way it’s done.
And one for the parents: What the heck are you doing blithely dropping off young teens at the festival campground for three days as if somebody’s looking out for them? Teens need their parents to help them learn when to draw the line.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Traumatic brain injury a common and life-altering experience
July 11, 2008

One hard fall is all it takes. One punch. One smashup. One bolt out of the blue - a stroke, a case of meningitis.
The official name for what results is “traumatic brain injury,” but that little label barely touches on what it means to have to live with one. Life will never be the same for those whose brains sustain a severe injury. People sometimes feel so dramatically altered that they come to consider the date of their injury as their new birthday.
For Victoria man Des Christie, the injury was from a car accident at the age of 14. For the other 10,000 to 14,000 British Columbians who incur a traumatic brain injury in any given year, it might be a workplace accident, fall around the home, sports injury, medical problem, or any number of weird and unpredictable twists of fate.
“In this organization alone, we’ve got a staff member, my younger brother, another staff member’s daughter and another staff member’s husband - all of them with an acquired brain injury,” says Cridge Centre CEO Shelley Morris. “It’s much more common than people realize.”
The Cridge - more commonly known for its work with children and seniors - operates the region’s sole group home for people with traumatic brain injury. It’s for men only, but then again, men are twice as likely to experience a brain injury. The most common cause is a car accident, and the most common victim is a young man between the age of 19 and 25 injured while taking part in a risky activity.
McDonald House provides housing for 10 men. Christie has been living there for 14 years, but first had to put in a hard and trouble-ridden 22 years trying to make it on his own before finding a place that understood his challenges. Geoff Sing, the Cridge’s manager of brain-injury services and a brain-injury survivor himself, figures he could easily fill “three more McDonald Houses” if the resources were there.
One of the many little cruelties of brain injury is that it’s frequently invisible. The person looks unchanged to outward appearances, but no longer acts the same. They might not be able to hold their emotions in check. They’ll have memory problems. They tire much more easily. They may have suffered a permanent loss of motor control and brain function, and are unable to keep work or sustain a happy family life.
“The divorce rates after a brain injury are 85 per cent,” notes Sing.
Anecdotally, traumatic brain injury is presumed to be a major contributor to problems on Victoria’s streets. For some, the brain injury came first and resulted in a fall to the streets. For others, the street came first and the brain injury followed. Beatings, accidents and drug-induced disasters are daily possibilities for many of those on the streets, and injury rates overall are high.
The Cridge Centre wants to get a survey off the ground in the next few months to ascertain the level of brain injury on the street in a more formal fashion, in hopes of making a case for more resources.
“If we can get some specific numbers in the homeless community, my hope is that it will arm us - and the Vancouver Island Health Authority - with what we need to put more money into this,” says Morris. “I think it would be staggering to see the stats on this.”
As with any chronic and complex health condition, what’s needed for those with traumatic brain injury is a continuum of services. People typically start out in an acute-care hospital after their injury, then transfer to a rehabilitative facility. But what happens after that - or along the way - varies wildly. Without advocacy and support, life gets dicey quickly for those with brain injuries, and problems pile up fast.
Real work for real wages figures prominently in maintaining quality of life for those with a brain injury, says Morris. For the past two years, the Cridge has partnered with Camosun College to provide work training and on-the-job support for 36 people; Thrifty Foods, Carmanah Technologies and Rogers Chocolates are among the employers hiring from the program.
It’s not about lowering standards to suit people with brain injuries, stresses Sing, but rather about building flexibility and training into the work. Christie hadn’t worked for years before landing a job at Carmanah through the program, and is delighted with the boost to his disability income and his self-esteem: “I feel happier when I’m working. Otherwise, I just feel useless.”
Like the saying goes, it’s not exactly rocket science. “We want to grow residential housing and a job for people,” says Morris. “Can it get any more basic than that?”

Monday, July 07, 2008

Little things mean a lot in halting a fall
July 4, 2008

Everybody stumbles in their life. Most of us will bounce through any number of ups and downs over the course of a lifetime, some of it the result of bad choices and a lot of it for no obvious explanation other than bad luck and lousy circumstance.
I suspect that’s why I’ve got a thing for issues like homelessness. I’ve seen my share of bad luck and lousy circumstance - nothing on a grand scale, but enough to help me see from an early age that life can hold some rough surprises. As the late John Lennon so eloquently penned, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”
Fortunately, every object nudged over the brink of the abyss is not destined to plunge non-stop to the bottom. Any number of things along the way can break the fall. The researchers call them “protective factors,” but what they ultimately come down to is having people in your life to catch you before you fall any farther.
It’s a role that family is intended to play, and certainly did in my life. But what if they don’t - or won’t? That’s where community service agencies shine as a kind of substitute family, breaking people’s falls with any number of small interventions before they plunge any further.
Consider the potentially disastrous fall of a young man named Jason, a 30-year-old dad who got injured on the job. Partway through his claim, he had his compensation cut in half to $400 a month, and suddenly found himself unable to make the rent. Poised to get joint-custody rights of his two-year-old son, Jason faced losing it all if he lost his housing.
Enter the Burnside-Gorge Community Association, one of a number of family-serving agencies in the region that play a vital role in catching people on the way down.
In Jason’s case, they gave him a crisis grant for the balance of April’s rent and walked him through all the papers needed for subsidized housing. Then they got him a place he could actually afford in just a week. They gave him a $2 lunch whenever he felt like dropping by. And in no time flat, Jason got things together again.
“If I’d have lost my house, I’d have lost my son - and I’d just gotten him back,” says Jason, who describes his Burnside-Gorge outreach worker as “a little angel on my shoulder through the whole thing.”
For a former Hamilton woman, the descent began with a cancer scare and the growing needs of her two children. The woman - we’ll call her Charlotte - was worried about her health and exhausted from being a single, working parent of two special-needs children. She figured she’d wrap up her seven years in Victoria and return to Hamilton to get more family support, including from the children’s father.
Things didn’t work out. The children hated their school, and were routinely teased and bullied. The family was unprepared for the behavioural problems in Charlotte’s children.
But she had spent every last dime of her savings getting to Hamilton, and couldn’t afford a second cross-country move to get back to Victoria. For 18 months, she and her kids toughed it out in Ontario. Then she and her ex-husband struck a deal: She’d return to Victoria, stay with a friend, and then put in four months at whatever job she could find to get back on her feet. He’d keep the kids in Hamilton until then.
Three weeks after her return to Victoria, however, her ex had given up and the children were back with Charlotte. Sharing a tiny basement suite with a friend up to that point, Charlotte and her children suddenly had nowhere to live. The three of them ended up spending a month in a Victoria transition house, with no clear plans for where they’d go after that.
Enter Burnside-Gorge once more, this time with a damage deposit for a rental house for Charlotte and the kids. She’d gotten her old job back by then and had money to cover the rent, but wouldn’t have been able to get the place without that damage deposit.
“I really didn’t know how I was going to come up with it,” says Charlotte. “Getting the damage deposit was a real turning point for me. I had no idea the Burnside-Gorge program even existed before that. Now that the kids and I are in a more stable situation, I want to find a way to give back.”
Score two for little miracles.