Christmas in Vancouver's brothels and sex work strolls

What are the holidays like for one of our city's most marginalized communities? VO brings you into Vancouver's brothels and onto its street corners to find out, invited by Jen's Kitchen outreach and advocacy project.

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“How you doing?” he asks, shaking our hands.
 
“Good. This is my friend David,” she replies.
 
“Quick,” the guard says, “come in and get dry -- you can dry off inside.”
 
He opens the door for us, and we ascend a staircase. The walls are yellow and white, and at the top I see a single brightly lit corridor with doors all the way along. Loud techno music thumps from one room. The linoleum floor is peeling in places.
 
The window labelled “Manager” is boarded up, but the office door is open and two people – in their early twenties, I guess -- sit around a desk. One of them is a woman dressed from head-to-toe in a pink velvet sweatsuit; I can see most of her bra. She smiles as we offer a bag of sandwiches for the workers, and runs between rooms along the corridor, returning with a sealed bucket of used drug needles.
 
Allan asks what supplies the brothel needs, and the young man with facial piercings in the office opens a small cupboard full of white labelled boxes.
 
“Everything except cookers,” he replies, referring to metal vestibules used to heat heroin.
 
9:45 p.m.
We take the needle bins down the street to a dark alley which hosts the Washington Needle Exchange. A teenage boy – texting on his smartphone -- guards the alley under an umbrella. He questions our visit like a customs agent. We're doing outreach to sex workers, Allen explains, and the young man waves us through after requesting a cigarette, signalling to another man at the other end of the alley that we're okay; the other guard disappears into the shadows.
 
“It has to do with dealing,” Allan explains. “If you don't look like you belong in the alley, they'll stop you. That's why he was like, 'Who are you? What are you doing in my alley?' Usually with outreach, they're quite okay.”
 
Inside the needle exchange, the staff person stocks us up with condoms, needles, crack pipe mouthpieces, alcohol swabs, and rubber straps to enlarge injection user's veins.
 
We walk back to the brothel, supplies in hand. I mistakenly approach the wrong doorway – where the woman in pink is hovering – and Allan warns me not to stop: it's a drug den, and if you're not known to the dealers inside, you'd best not loiter.
 
Inside, a few more people are around the manager's office – some munching eagerly on tuna sandwiches. The owner, a middle-aged portly man, is there too and thanks us for the lunches. On a previous visit, Allan says, he told her his hotel offers a safer place than the street for women to work – at a cost of only $20 an hour. If women are homeless, he often lets them stay in the rooms overnight, since the place closes at midnight anyway.

On Christmas Day, however, this illegal brothel plans to open for 24 hours -- ostensibly to provide women with shelter on the holiday (but on the other hand, it provides johns with 24 hour sex). And on top of Allan's gift bags of hygiene products, shampoo, make-up and chocolates, another donor dropped off platters of meat and pastries as a gift.

"How do you make sure someone has a merry Christmas if a brothel is open 24 hours?" Allan asks, somewhat rhetorically. "It's kind of funny."

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