Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Back on the streets, this time for good

Two worlds collided for Thea Cunningham when she took her 19-year-old daughter back to the corner in Victoria where she used to work as a prostitute.
Toni, a sex trade worker, leaves the PEERS outreach motor home parked along Rock Bay Avenue after collecting clothing and food.

Two worlds collided for Thea Cunningham when she took her 19-year-old daughter back to the corner in Victoria where she used to work as a prostitute.

Cunningham, 40, night outreach co-ordinator for the sex-worker support group PEERS, radiates enthusiasm and energy, but memories of her 12 years of drugs, street sex and alcohol abuse are never far away.

“That was my corner for three years,” Cunningham said, looking at the Rock Bay Avenue and David Street intersection, a central part of Victoria’s stroll.

During the years of healing, after Cunningham staggered into PEERS in 2004, addicted, homeless and dirty, without underwear and wearing shoes that were too small, she avoided returning to the corner.

But when her daughter Jesi, who is studying journalism, asked her to go back so she could interview her mother for a school project, emotions spilled over for both of them.

“Holy shit. It was so hard going back to the corner. Jesi and I have a great relationship and she knows what happened, but when she was standing there interviewing me, it just hit her,” Cunningham said, wiping her eyes.

“Those nights, when she lay awake at night when I hadn’t seen her for 18 months, this is where I was. Getting into strange men’s cars, full of booze bottles.”

Both women were sobbing as they stood on the corner. Jesi ended up being comforted by one of her mother’s former colleagues, who was still working the same area.

“She just held Jesi while she just bawled,” said Cunningham. “It was closure for both of us.”

It had been the desire to do better by her daughter that became one of the driving forces behind her decision to transform her life.

Cunningham — who recently won the Courage to Come Back Award, given by Coast Mental Health to six British Columbians who have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds — hit bottom during her years in Victoria.

“I was sick when I did dope and I was sick when I didn’t do dope. I had two heroin overdoses and smashed all my front teeth, and I was tired of living in crack shacks and shooting up in doorways,” she said.

Former PEERS executive director Jody Paterson took Cunningham to a transition house the first day she asked for help.

“She was really deep in her addiction. It had taken over her life,” Paterson said. “But she was still this beautiful, very charming, well-spoken, caring and kind person.”

From that first day at PEERS, it was obvious Cunningham had a knack for helping people, Paterson said.

“I would see her come in all skinny and struggling, but someone skinnier and struggling more would be sitting next to her in the office and she would start trying to help that person. She had ‘outreach’ written all over her.”

Cunningham’s struggles started early in life, when childhood sexual abuse, which started at the age of three and continued until she was 14, pushed her off the rails.

“There are a lot of us women out there that have a history of being sexually abused,” she said. “I left home for the first time when I was 15. I was drinking, doing drugs and sleeping with every guy around and then I got pregnant when I was 20, and had the baby when I was 21.”

She briefly tried to be a mother, but soon started working as an escort and her life again spiralled out of control.

“I made a lot of bad decisions. I had no direction and no support and no knowledge about how to do anything,” she said.

While on the streets, she had come across PEERS outreach workers, so when she reached the end of her tether, that’s where she went for help.

“I would be dead for sure if it wasn’t for PEERS. I was heading down that road pretty quickly,” she said.

Coming back was a long process, and it took Cunningham six attempts before she graduated from the PEERS Elements program in 2007.

Elements is a pre-employment program, developed by sex workers, that teaches many basic life skills that most people take for granted, but are tough for those trying to leave the street.

“It was years since I had had to pay a bill or gone grocery shopping or gone to a coffee shop, and that’s what PEERS gave me the courage to do,” Cunningham said. “You have to learn to live life all over again.”

Dealing with budgets is a major hurdle for former sex workers, said Lauren Casey, PEERS acting executive director, who worked with Cunningham.

“Sex workers don’t necessarily make a lot of money, but they make fast money, so you have to move out of that and into this new world where you have to figure out a budget.”

Shortly after her graduation from Elements, Cunningham, who has now been clean for 51Ú2 years, was offered a job at PEERS. She then worked as a research assistant at the HerWay Home program — a pre- and post-natal program for women with addictions — at the University of Victoria before returning to PEERS as night outreach co-ordinator. She also does outreach work for AIDS Vancouver Island.

Jesi returned to live with her five years ago, when she was 14, and has now left for college.

Casey said it’s never clear what offers people the window that allows them to change.

“I think the main thing I want to say about Thea is she is very much an activist,” she said. “She has this amazing strength and resilience. An incredible spirit.”

Paterson believes the support of Cunningham’s family was another key to helping her recover. “She had a family that was crazy about her. The family was always waiting for her,” she said. “In addiction, people fail and fail and fail again, but her family always came back.”

Out on the street, Cunningham often works with former colleagues as she hands out clean needles, lunches and clothes and offers a sympathetic ear. She is careful not to push anyone to change their lives, and there is no trace of judgment as women rummage through the food and clothes offered from the red PEERS van.

“But I believe, by me being there, it shows it’s not impossible to change your life when you are ready.”

In trying to explain why she has been successful, Cunningham stopped to think for a moment.

“I believe you just have to keep focused and positive. When you do good things in your life and work hard, good things come to you,” she said. “I was blown away by how many doors opened for me. You have to have hope, and PEERS gave me hope.”

Loving life is a new feeling, said Cunningham, whose favourite word is “awesome.”

Now, she is about to take on a new challenge — training to become a first-aid attendant, hoping to work in mining or oilpatch camps.

“It would be my dream job. I love helping people, and first aid is something I have always loved,” she said.

It will be a loss if Cunningham leaves, said outreach worker Sunny Burke.

“I was ecstatic when I got this job because I knew Thea was someone I really wanted to get to know,” Burke said.

“She is my role model.”

[email protected]