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New director for PEERS, support group for sex workers

After a rough financial year, the PEERS resource society for local sex workers has reopened its Esquimalt drop-in centre five days a week and welcomed a new executive director.
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Rachel Phillips, a longtime PEERS board member, says the society's financial issues prompted her to step forward for the executive director position.

After a rough financial year, the PEERS resource society for local sex workers has reopened its Esquimalt drop-in centre five days a week and welcomed a new executive director.

“A lot of familiar faces have come in and we’re hoping for more,” said new executive director Rachel Phillips.

PEERS was forced to close its drop-in centre last August and drop its employment program after funding cuts and restrictions.

Public and political outcry led to some financial support from the community, including monthly fundraisers by a local burlesque group at the Cambie pub and a $15,000 grant from the Victoria Foundation. This helped PEERS open one day a week for the winter.

But it was a $100,000 grant from the provincial government this spring that helped the centre open for half-days during the week.

At the organization’s annual general meeting on Thursday, Esquimalt-Royal Roads MLA Maurine Karagianis said she would continue to pressure the government to provide core funding.

Phillips said she also plans to seek stable funding and, after seven years as a PEERS board member, came forward for the executive director position because of the financial issues.

“We’re not in the clear, and I felt it was good for someone who knows the organization to be here,” said Phillips, adding the position would ideally be filled by someone who has experienced sex work.

“I really believe strongly in the services that PEERS offers and that the voices of sex workers need to be heard.”

Phillips has a doctoral degree in sociology and has conducted extensive research in the health and sex work field.

She has also worked on the front lines of social services at the Greater Victoria Child and Family Counselling Association.

Outgoing executive director Marion Little was lauded at the meeting for building community relationships and awareness in a difficult year.

She said her mantra was always, “Every human being has the right to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Little also announced that she will be moving to Ontario.

spetrescu@timescolonist.com