Seeking space for a safer space

Does Winnipeg have adequate shelter for sex workers?

Vancouver will soon be home to Canada’s first 24-7 shelter for street-based sex workers. The 23-bed facility will operate under a partnership between the WISH Drop-In Centre, the City of Vancouver and BC Housing. It will be open to those seeking short-term respite and extended stays.

Though Winnipeg doesn’t have a similar 24-7 shelter right now, other shelter options and resources are available for sex workers. Organizations like the Mount Carmel Clinic’s Sage House work to provide a variety of supports to cisgender and transgender women in the sex work industry. 

Deena Brock is the provincial co-ordinator of the Manitoba Association of Women’s Shelters. 

Deena Brock, provincial co-ordinator of the Manitoba Association of Women’s Shelters. Supplied photo.

Over the years, Brock says that women’s shelters in Manitoba have evolved to be able to support people who are fleeing non-domestic or family violence, including men who seek resources and those in the sex work industry. 

“What we found is that there is a gap in terms of sex workers,” Brock says. “A lot has changed in the last three or four years, where we’ve been able to put the onus on the shelter to be able to say ‘we need to bring you in because this is unsafe.’”

Now, the greatest hurdle is not necessarily an inability to provide services and resources to sex workers, but a lack of shelter space. 

“It’s almost a grey area, in a sense,” Brock says. “If they are in a dangerous situation, they can definitely call a shelter. The problem is that Winnipeg shelters are usually full.”

Marcie Wood is the executive director of Willow Place, a shelter that primarily serves those fleeing domestic or family violence, but also offers services to sex workers in need, according to Wood. Despite being the largest shelter of its kind in Manitoba, Wood says that it, too, tends to lack bed space, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened capacity issues. 

“In a typical year without a pandemic, we have somewhere between 20 and 25 individuals plus their children,” Wood says. “This year, we can only have a maximum of 17 individuals plus their children.” 

Aside from issues around shelter capacity, Brock says measures aimed at keeping those in shelters safe might pose as a barrier. Having to screen callers in order to assure they are legitimate and not a threat to those who sought shelter in the first place may be necessary, but could be a deterrent for sex workers who require immediate service. 

While Wood advocates for more space as a way to be able to expand their services, Brock says she would like to see additional sex worker supports implemented in Winnipeg. 

In the meantime, both Wood and Brock emphasize that the shelter and outreach services they offer are available to sex workers. 

“I recognize that it might not always be accessible due to a lack of space, but we certainly do provide service for sex workers,” Wood says. “We want to make sure the community is aware of that.” 

Published in Volume 75, Number 06 of The Uniter (October 22, 2020)

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