Mean streets

Life is short and harsh for prostitutes in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Many enter the trade as teenagers, often to feed their addictions. And many are dead before their fortieth birthdays. For the serial killer Robert Pickton, these women were easy prey. Almost three years after his arrest and highly publicized trial, sex workers say they are as vulnerable as ever

It’s Valentine’s Day in Downtown Vancouver’s Eastside and for the 18th consecutive year, there’ll be a march for the women who’ve lost their lives or gone missing on its impoverished streets. Hundreds of sympathetic, solemn-faced people have assembled outside the Carnegie Centre in the closed-off intersection of Main and Hastings streets. They wait patiently for the families of the missing and murdered, who are inside giving voice to their grief.

In a Carnegie Centre meeting room, the walls are lined with paper hearts. A woman fans burning sage and sweetgrass with an eagle feather and the air is full of their scents. Meanwhile, a group of Aboriginal men bang drums appreciatively as family members of missing women step toward a microphone. Some dissolve into tears as they recall their sisters, mothers and daughters. Others rail about police cover-ups and conspiracies.

One of the speakers is Ernie Crey. A squarely built man with a wide, gentle face, he is welcomed with the kind of encouraging applause given to an old friend. “This is a day I mark on my calendar,” says the 59-year-old fisheries and child-welfare advisor for the Sto:lo Tribal Council, whose ancestral lands are located in the Fraser Valley. “I’ve come down here to celebrate the memory of my sister Dawn.”

Dawn Crey’s DNA was found on the suburban pig farm of Robert William Pickton, but the Crey family has been told there isn’t enough evidence to add her case to the 26 counts of murder that Pickton was charged with. (In December 2007, he was convicted of second-degree murder on six of them.) But at the time of his sentence, 39 other cases of missing women were still unsolved. To the families of those women, Pickton’s conviction, after a five-year investigation and a year-long trial that reportedly cost more than $100 million, brings little comfort. They have good reason to fear that their pleas will be brushed aside and ignored forever.

Ernie becomes forceful as he pushes for a more thorough investigation into the whereabouts of the missing women who are still un­accounted for. “It’s not acceptable,” he says, to applause. “When there’s an unjust situation, I just don’t lie down. I’m not anybody’s doormat.”

While Pickton may have entered our national consciousness as a monstrous villain, in reality he wasn’t so much a diabolical mastermind as an opportunist. Though he won’t be eligible for parole until 2027, Pickton’s incarceration hasn’t changed the conditions that allowed him such easy access to vulnerable women in the first place.

There isn’t any official figure on female sex workers on the neighbourhood’s streets, but Kate Gibson, the executive director of the area’s Women’s Information and Safe Haven (WISH) Drop-in Centre Society, places the number between 1,500 and 2,000. On average, these women enter the trade at 14 and have a life expectancy of 40. Even though Pickton’s trial exposed the dire situation of Vancouver’s sex workers, women are “still homeless, they still live in abject poverty, they’re still traumatized, they’re discriminated against,” says Gibson. She waves a stack of “bad-date reports” from sex workers who’ve been mistreated recently, and adds, “There are still guys like that out there.”

With the 2010 Winter Olympics putting Vancouver in the spotlight, a loosely aligned collection of about a dozen acronym-named organizations are scrambling to help women in the Downtown Eastside, but are finding their efforts undermined by limited funding and general apathy. There’s no silver-bullet solution, and few politicians are willing to support an issue as controversial as prostitution. And when faced with a selection of less-than-ideal approaches to improve the lives of these women, the majority of the public has chosen to look away. It’s this same indifference that gave Pickton his chance – and stands to do the same for other predators.

Dianne* is lanky and has a long, narrow face. When she smiles, she flashes a gap between her top front teeth. Sitting in an office at the Vivian Transitional Housing Program for Women, a supportive home known to the residents as the Vivian, she speaks in a bubbly, girlish manner, explaining that the initials “N.P.” tattooed on her hand stand for “Nikki P,” one of her street names. At 38, this Aboriginal woman of Carrier descent has been a survival sex worker – someone who’s in the sex industry as a means of subsistence or to support an addiction for 26 years.

After spending time in juvenile-detention centres, she hitchhiked to Vancouver from Prince George, B.C., when she was 13. “I was too young to get any help from the government,” she says about becoming a sex worker. “It was the only way I knew how to make money.” She was hooked on “T and Rs” – Tylenol 3 and Ritalin – a prescription-drug combination that, when injected, approximates cocaine and heroin. She now works on Cordova Street near Oppenheimer Park, where drug dealers and addicts mingle by picnic tables and a baseball diamond occupied by seagulls.

Dianne’s story is drawn from the biographical boilerplate that describes most survival sex workers in Vancouver. They are disproportionately Aboriginal women. Most have addiction problems and histories of abuse. Many started working in the sex trade when they were minors (at that age, they aren’t technically prostitutes, but are considered “sexually exploited youth” by the criminal justice system).

Dawn Crey had a similar journey. She was five when her father died, her mother started drinking and the family collapsed. Ernie got into trouble and was sent to a juvenile centre, while Dawn and her three sisters were split up and placed in foster homes.

Along with another sister, Faith, Dawn was sent to live with a family who owned a chicken farm. “They were badly abused, verbally and physically,” Ernie says. “Their labour was exploited. Not just chores for kids – heavy, heavy labour.”

Dawn eventually moved into a loving foster home, but she still drifted into drugs and sex work in Vancouver in the mid-1970s. Ernie remembers Dawn staying with his own family in the 1980s. “All that time, she would have hallucinations. She kept seeing serpents,” Ernie recalls. “By then the drugs had taken a heavy toll.” Dawn was reported missing from the Downtown Eastside in December 2000. While Ernie might never know for certain, he suspects she was led to Pickton’s farm by the promise of a fix.

Since the 1960s, the Downtown Eastside – once a thriving centre for entertainment and shopping – has entered a long free-fall. Businesses closed, cheap drugs flooded the streets, and patients of underfunded psychiatric institutions, such as the Riverview Hospital in nearby Coquitlam, were released under the policy of “deinstitutionalization” and ended up in the area because it was affordable. Today, the neighbourhood looks like a war zone. Its 16,000 residents have an average annual income of $14,024, and a third of them are injection-drug users. Among female sex workers, the rate of HIV infection is 26 percent – roughly the same as Botswana’s.

The troubles that female prostitutes experience aren’t much different from those faced by others in the neighbourhood: homelessness, addiction, poverty and diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. Nearly 10 percent of residents are Aboriginal and their lives often reveal the sad legacy of colonization. Many are survivors of residential schools or the children of survivors, and have been shuffled through the child-welfare system. Equally devastating is the alarmingly high rate of fetal alcohol syndrome.

According to some local activists, the looming Olympics are bringing the Downtown Eastside’s problems into the public consciousness. Leslie Remund, the associate director of RainCity Housing and Support Society, which provides housing in the neighbourhood, believes the upcoming Games gave the provincial government the “political will” to help bankroll the Vivian, which opened with $1.2 million of private funding in 2004.

Indeed, since 2000, $1.4 billion in public and private funds have been spent on the area, including the purchase of 16 single-room-only hotels in the past two and a half years. But the demand still outstrips the supply. The Vivian only has 24 spaces. “We can’t do a waiting list because the numbers are enormous,” Remund says. “The waiting list becomes irrelevant after a point.”

Dianne, who had been homeless for seven years, has been at the Vivian since it opened, and participates in craft nights and a community kitchen, where residents cook for one another. “I love this place,” she says. “The staff treat me very well.” She continues to work on the street four days a week, but support workers have helped her stabilize her addiction with methadone and they ensure that she receives medical attention.

Amelia Ridgway, who manages the Vivian, makes it a priority to bring medical and mental-health services on-site for residents, many of whom sleep through the day and are wary of the potential judgment of doctors. At the same time, she is conscious of not forcing help onto these tough, often guarded, women. “What we do is sit back and let them come to us,” she says. “It may mean for their first month at the Vivian, they’re simply coming in and out of the door.”

The struggles sex workers face are so great that change comes slowly, if at all. At PEERS Vancouver Resource Society, an organization that helps people leave the sex trade, life-skill classes are offered, which cover topics such as healthy relationships and anger management. Like many support workers in the area, PEERS’s executive director, Ty Mistry, defines results in relative terms. “My success is when a girl comes up to me and says, ‘I might have to go back and work a little bit, but I have some self-esteem. I have skills and a lot to offer this world, and I’m not human garbage.’”

When I ask Dianne about her own experiences with violent men, she tells me about an incident that happened when she was in her early twenties. She was taken to an industrial area at about 3 a.m. and given $60 for a sex act. When the man couldn’t complete it, she grew impatient and jumped out of the car. “He chased me for four blocks with a knife in his hand,” she recalls. “He was an arm’s reach away from me, and he fell right on his face in the middle of the street. I kept running. I couldn’t call the cops. There’s nobody in those industrial areas at all. No vehicles, no police.”

To prostitutes in Vancouver, violence is as commonplace as the rain. In a survey of 183 sex workers conducted by Prostitution Alternative Counselling & Education Society (PACE) in 2001, nearly 70 percent of respondents reported that they’d been physically threatened and 45 percent said that they had been raped.

Sheri Kiselbach, a former sex worker who was assaulted herself on many occasions, is the violence prevention coordinator at PACE and leads safety classes. “We teach women about knowing their surroundings, de-escalation, cues to assault, knowing what adrenaline is, intuition, safety plans, weapons of opportunity and targets.”

For the past five years, PACE has worked with the WISH Drop-in Centre to run the Mobile Access Project, a custom-designed van that’s become a familiar nighttime presence in the Downtown Eastside. Female staff offer coffee, juice, condoms and clean needles to sex workers, who can also take a break in the van or report bad dates. “It makes the women feel that there’s someone out there looking out for them,” says WISH’s Gibson. “There are bad guys who know exactly what the van is, and they just steer clear.” (As this story was going to press, the groups were struggling to find funding to keep the van on the street.) Detective Constable Linda Malcolm, the Vancouver Police Department’s sex industry liaison officer, wants to improve the histor­ically tense relationship between prostitutes and the police, which was even more strained by the department’s slow response to the cases of the missing women. Malcolm regularly appears at PACE and WISH, and she says this outreach has paid off. She proudly recalls one incident in which she was helping a man from Saskatoon find his crack-addicted daughter. She was tipped off on the daughter’s whereabouts by a sex worker. “These women would help you in a heartbeat,” Malcolm says.

Despite these efforts, it’s inevitable that police will always be, by the nature of their jobs, at odds with sex workers. “Even if a cop really has a woman’s interests in mind, ultimately, if she’s breaking the law, she’s breaking the law,” says Katrina Pacey, a staff lawyer of the Pivot Legal Society, which represents survival sex workers in the area. Kiselbach, for instance, remembers the police being called to her apartment after one of her “dates” grew angry and started smashing her windows and mirrors. She says she never heard back from the police. “I didn’t feel they were looking for the guy,” she says. In the next year, Kiselbach received two soliciting charges. While she describes her relationship with officers like Malcolm as very positive now, “At the time, I felt that by coming forth and being honest, I was targeted.”

Malcolm, a 28-year veteran of the force, admits that assaults are hugely under-reported. Apart from a fear of arrest, some women are afraid of their children being taken away. A recent initiative to ticket Downtown Eastside residents for jaywalking, which was intended to reduce traffic accidents, has also been met with suspicion. Some have said it’s part of a plan to clean up the city in time for the Olympics. “Nobody will be taken off the streets for the duration of the Games,” Malcolm insists. Then she adds, “We can’t get people to stay in jail in the best of times.”

Susan Davis, 41, has been a sex worker since she was 18. After a stint in the Downtown Eastside, she now operates out of her apartment near Robson Street, advertising on Craigslist and in The Province. “I’m a feminist, but a new kind of feminist that embraces men,” she tells me soon after we meet. A friend of hers has divided feminists into two camps: “c–k blockers” and “nut nuzzlers.” “I’m a nut nuzzler,” Davis declares.

In the weeks I’ve spent researching this story, I’ve worried endlessly about inadvertently misspeaking and causing offence. In contrast to others that I’ve interviewed, Davis is funny, refreshingly plain-spoken and off-message. The zaftig, curly-haired daughter of well-educated environmental scientists, she talks openly about her customers. She reels off stories about clients, such as a physically disabled 22-year-old whom she helped to “feel like a man for a minute.” She wants me to know that they aren’t all “perverts, pedophiles and rapists.”

Davis is a spokesperson for the BC Coalition of Experiential Communities, a group involved with one of the more controversial proposals to address the concerns of the Downtown Eastside: a co-op brothel. The idea, which was supported by Vancouver East MP Libby Davies and former mayor Sam Sullivan, follows the same harm-reduction approach as Insite, the Downtown Eastside’s supervised injection space. Davis says it would be a place where women can “work in safety inside, with panic buttons and garbage cans, with places to clean up afterwards, safe-sex supplies and security.”

Advocates for the brothel estimate that 80 percent of sex work already occurs in massage parlours licensed by the city and in private homes; yet, according to the Community Initiative for Health and Safety, of the 114 known murders of prostitutes between 1975 and 2007, all but one of the women worked on the street.

Still, the brothel, which remains in the discussion stage, raises the hackles of abolitionist groups that want any kind of sex-for-pay banned. (A word on language: The differences between these two positions include semantics. Harm-reduction groups prefer “sex worker” and “sex work.” Abolitionists feel those words legitimize the activity and instead use “prostitute” and “prostitution.” Chatelaine has used the terms interchangeably in this story.)

Abolitionists believe positive experiences like Davis’s are atypical. To them, violence and exploitation are inherent in the act of buying sex. “When a john gives a girl money and enters her physically, that’s a human-rights violation,” says Jacqueline Lynne, a member of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network. She sees sinister motivations in the push for a brothel, which originally planned to open part of its operation in time for the Olympics. “They wanted to have open season for male buyers when they come to Vancouver,” she says.

Abolitionists and harm-reduction advocates are like rival sects of the same religion, ostensibly committed to the same goal, but galaxies apart in their world views. It’s no surprise that these differences have extended to discussions about reforming the Criminal Code of Canada. Currently, Canadian law allows for paid sex, but forbids public communicating for its purpose, living off its avails and keeping a “bawdy house.” Like the cyn­ical “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gay men and lesbians in the U.S. military, Canadian prostitution laws infuriate everyone, but seem designed to prevent any consensus for new legislation.

In her report “Voices for dignity: A call to end the harms caused by Canada’s sex trade laws,” the lawyer Katrina Pacey collected 91 affidavits from survival sex workers calling for the decriminalization of prostitution altogether. “This isn’t a position I came up with because I read a bunch of feminist theory,” she says. “I’m the one who’s getting calls from women who are getting taken into back alleys, and they’re the ones calling for legal change.”

Pacey believes that decriminalization would make sex work safer. For instance, without the fear of arrest, women would be more likely to call the police when they’re assaulted. (This approach differs from legalization, the route taken in the Netherlands and Australia.

There are some sex workers in Vancouver who balk at this idea for fear of the red tape that might accompany government regulation.)

Janine Benedet, a University of British Columbia law professor whose research focuses on violence against women, says more attention needs to be paid to the conditions that produce prostitution. In her opinion, women don’t choose the work so much as it chooses them. “The move toward decriminalization tends to assume that women in prostitution fall from the sky at 18,” she says, “and it’s just a coincidence that they tend to be all women, and disproportionately, in this city, Aboriginal and Asian women. Those things aren’t coincidences at all.”

Instead, Benedet says that Canada should follow the example of Sweden, which has decriminalized the selling of sex but criminalized its purchase. “Men are criminalized not because [prostitution is] immoral or brings down property values,” she says, “but because what they’re doing is an act of sexual exploitation of women.”

The schism between abolitionists and harm-reduction advocates in some way parallels the larger societal ambivalence about sex work: It’s repellent to many, yet as long as there is a demand for it, the practice will continue. And in the end, it doesn’t matter whether you think sex work is empowering, immoral, destructive or a necessary evil. Until the public decides to engage the issue and force lawmakers to find solutions, the women of the Downtown Eastside will still be on the streets and fearing for their lives.

As the families of the missing women move onto the street to join the Women’s Memorial March, Ernie Crey stays at the Carnegie Centre. Only a month earlier, he had an operation to treat an irregular heartbeat and, as he puts it, “they told me to chill.” He spoke that day, he says, because “I want people to know Dawn had a family that cared for her. She was really bright and had a big heart.”

Since Dawn’s DNA was found on the Pickton farm in 2004, Ernie has spoken with the police, attended pre-trial meetings and the preliminary trial and contacted the Attorney General to keep her investigation alive. “There’s somebody out there who knows something about it,” he insists.

As if Dawn’s death wasn’t enough tra­gedy to bear, Ernie has also seen his brother, Gordon, murdered; has lost one sister, Faith, to an overdose; and another, Sherri, to complications from HIV. He’s afraid that Sherri’s two daughters, aged 16 and 17, who are in foster care and have dropped out of school, might end up in the Downtown Eastside. “I’m seeing it repeat itself,” he says. “And my family is one of many.”

The Women’s Memorial March leaves without Ernie. The crowd, some of them carry­ing a banner-sized quilt made in memory of the missing women, cut through an alley behind Main Street onto Powell, before winding back up Hastings on a sunny, spring-like afternoon. If only for one day, the rest of the city hasn’t forgotten the women of the Downtown Eastside.