Allan guides me down a side-street off Hastings – pointing out along the way the large entrance of an abandoned building. It's here that she slept when she started working the Vancouver streets, and she and other workers slept in the doorway with their drug dealer for protection.
We approach a woman on a corner who looks in her late twenties. She's my classic image of a street worker: tall leather high-heel boots, extraordinarily short skirt, and cleavage that looks painfully cold in the chilly climate. Her Vancouver twist on the trade is a large, black umbrella.
“Are you hungry?” Allan asks.
“Umm, yeah -- a little bit,” she replies, smiling.
“Would you like a sandwich and a juice box?”
“Oh, sure. Awesome, thank you guys very much.”
We approach another worker – this one seems in her late teens, no umbrella, but at least she has a sweater. Her skirt, however, is even shorter than the first's. She readily accepts a lunch bag and giggles as she says thank you.
Allan explains that most of the side streets north of Hastings are sex worker strolls, as well as the strip of Cordova Street east of Main. Further east, the architecture changes to factories along the railway tracks, and we approach a woman slightly older than the others -- she's hugs her arms together from the cold as she excitedly recognizes Allan. They've been friends since both working the streets.
“Hey! how are you?” Allan greets her. “Would you like a lunch?”
“Sure!” she says, smiling broadly. “How's it going girl? Merry Christmas!”
Allan hands her a bad date sheet we picked up from a couple outreach workers – the sheet lists suspicious or dangerous men who have been reported lately by sex workers – and includes a photo of convicted serial killer Robert Pickton's brother, Dave, who they said had been reported by several workers in the area.
“They show the picture, eh? Of his brother?” the worker asks.
“Yeah, that's Robert Pickton's brother,” Allan replies. “You have to watch for him – and if you see him, call the police to come get him. He's not supposed to be down here.”
“They should put his face on a Batman fuckin' light in the sky,” the woman jokes. “He's a fuckin' freak, man.”
“How's it going tonight?” I inquire.
“Pretty fuckin' boring,” she replies as a car drives by and slows down, and she points to Allan, laughing. “Oh, now they're fuckin' showing up 'cause she's shown up!”
The woman explains that she lost her jacket earlier in the evening, but when Allan mentions warming up in the brothel, she laughs.
“Oh, I don't do lays,” she says, warmly hugging Allan and then me (she has a boyfriend, Allan explains, so she now just does handjobs and blowjobs). “How you doing?”
I ask her about how she copes with the cold nights like this.
“You know what, I don't mind – I don't give a shit,” she says. “Like, I'm happy out here. It's usually pretty interesting.”
The next worker we encounter stands on the other side of the railway tracks, on what Allan refers to as the “Tranny Stroll,” where transgender sex workers tend to wait for clients ("tranny" is generally considered an offensive name in the transgender community). We meet a tall, striking woman with a colourful umbrella.
It's a quiet night, she explains – no customers yet. She'll have to pack it in soon if no one comes. When we later pass over the tracks on the Hastings overpass, I glance down and see her alone amidst the warehouses and factories as a freight train roars past. In the dark, this person -- who struck me as strong, outgoing and warm – seems small, isolated and vulnerable by the railway tracks.
We head back towards Cordova Street, and eventually approach a skinny woman stumbling on the sidewalk, carrying a stack of white puffy jackets which she's selling. She lives in a nearby women's transitional housing complex – what some critics refer to as one of several “government-run brothels.” Technically, the Vivian Transitional Housing Program for Women is not a brothel – it offers housing and support staff for 24 women considered “high-risk,” providing security, shelter, and support for women most at risk of abuse and violence.
A staff person welcomes us in, and explains that Vivian House was opened in 2006 by RainCity Housing -- the building is the lowest-barrier shelter for drug-addicted sex workers – and allows them to work out of their rooms and do drugs on site.
“These are women with mental health needs and drug addictions,” says the other staff person. Behind the front desk, a computer monitor displays scenes from security cameras around the building. Outside the office are plastic drawers of needles and other drug paraphernalia.
“Our harm-reduction supplies are all right there,” she continues. “For women in the neighbourhood, they can come and knock on our door and access all the supplies. But only guests are allowed inside the building.”
The first staff person’s eyes light up when Allan asks if the residents would appreciate presents around Christmas-time – especially the suggestion of including chocolates in the gift bags. “They'd just LOVE that so much.”
Allowing survival sex workers to bring clients into the government-funded program has caused much controversy since it opened, but after the Vancouver Courier published a scathing criticism of the project earlier this year, several residents responded with letters to the paper praising Vivian house.
“I moved into the Vivian just before Christmas and that would have been my first Christmas that I got gifts and got experience a Christmas for the first time in my whole life,” wrote 25-year old Shannon G. “I’ve learned to be a better person and be more stable.
“I’m learning how to be more independent and interact with people. I’m learning a lot about respecting others and that we all live here and work together. This is our home. It’s a safe place for all of us. If we didn’t have this here we wouldn’t have nothing.”
After we drop off the last of our lunch bags, the woman with the puffy jackets invites us to visit with her in her room -- "It's just up here," she says, pointing to the Vivian building. But the project is for residents and their clients only, and we politely decline.
Making our way back to Hastings Street, we meet a few more workers, as well as groups of roving young men in nice jackets, freshly emerged from the bars. They're not from the neighbourhood, Allan explains, but an increase in upscale bars in the DTES -- part of the process of gentrification -- has led to an increase in drunken harassment of sex workers, she says.
As we continue west, I also notice several of the women we met tonight walking with our brown paper lunch bags in their arms.
The rain is pouring down profusely as we return to Allan's home – from which she runs Jen's Kitchen from her own pocket and occasional donations – and as I reflect on my soaking wet shoes, Allan reflects on our experience in Vancouver's brothels and on the strolls.
“Thank you for coming out,” she says, fatigue from a long day creeping into her voice. “This was a pretty quiet night – but it's good to get more educated about the Downtown Eastside.
“This is normal for me – to go into underground brothels and back alleys, past drug dealers and into needle depots. I hope people can come to understand what people deal with down here.”
Want to support outreach and advocacy for sex industry workers? The following organizations offer resources and accept donations:
- Jen's Kitchen: survivorjenn (at) spinfinder.com
- WISH Drop-In Centre Society
- PACE (Providing Alternatives Counselling & Education) Society
- ATIRA Women's Resource Society
- MAP (Mobile Outreach Project)
- RainCity Housing