‘Not acceptable to turn a blind eye’ to sex workers using PEERS drop-in centre, MLA says

Politicians, police and frontline workers are questioning the abrupt closing of a drop-in centre and pre-employment program for sex workers in Victoria.

Crippling funding cuts forced the non-profit society PEERS to close its centre and cut its Elements pre-employment program. The organization’s day and night outreach programs will continue.

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“I’m quite surprised, given the issue of violence against women was at the forefront of discussions with the government in recent months,” said Maurine Karagianis, MLA for Esquimalt-Royal Roads.

“The government assured us they were going to follow through on the recommendations of Wally Oppal on things just like this. … Instead, they seem paralyzed to make any progress.”

In his 2012 Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, Oppal urged the B.C. government to commit to provide funding to existing centres that offer emergency services to women engaged in the sex trade so the centres could stay open 24 hours a day.

“It’s not acceptable to turn a blind eye to these women in the sex trade who are most vulnerable to violence,” Karagianis said.

PEERS serves 515 clients a year, about 80 per cent of whom are women, said executive director Marion Little.

As a stop-gap measure while the drop-in centre is closed, AIDS Vancouver Island has opened its café at the Access Health Centre at 713 Johnson St. to PEERS staff and clients to meet on Wednesday afternoons.

Little said donations have started coming in to help revive the centre. If sufficient money is raised, the centre could reopen for even one day a week, she said.

Karagianis said she and Michelle Mungall, the NDP opposition critic for the Ministry of Social Development, will raise the issue of the PEERS program’s closing with the government, and will reach out to the PEERS board to offer help.

PEERS has struggled since its core funding was shifted from federal to provincial jurisdiction six years ago. Its undoing came when funding moved to a subcontract through the Employment Program of B.C., and it was forced to fit its services to meet a fee-for-service billing model. This required that PEERS provide detailed personal information for its services, even though the society worked to support sex workers unconditionally and protect their confidentiality.

In a statement Tuesday, Social Development Minister Don McRae said sex workers would still have access to employment programs. “PEERS was a sub-contractor of the contracted service providers in Victoria, who have confirmed that there will be no disruption to services as a result of PEERS withdrawing its employment-related programs,” McRae said. He did not explain how such services would be provided.

Victoria police are concerned its officers might feel the effects of PEERS’s reductions in service, “as the [sex] workers may not be as well-informed, cared for and supported, potentially leaving them more susceptible to exploitation and abuse,” said Det. Sgt. Todd Wellman, supervisor of the Special Victims Unit.

He said PEERS acts as a conduit between sex trade workers and police, building a sense of trust. “With them, we’ve helped build a safe place for sex trade workers to report crimes.”

In a recent example, police knew that a sex trade worker, who was the victim of an aggravated assault, was hesitant to report it. PEERS encouraged the woman to come forward.

“PEERS supported the worker through the process and we actually conducted our interview at PEERS, whereas we would likely not have obtained a statement from the victim [otherwise] as she was not comfortable attending the police station,” Wellman said.

Kristen Kvakic, director of programs at AIDS Vancouver Island, said the organization has worked closely with PEERS over the years and can’t see how its services will be replaced.

“PEERS provides a specialized, niche service. I’m not sure anyone can pick up that work,” she said.

“When people say this program changed my life or saved my life, and then it’s gone, it’s heart-breaking.”

spetrescu@timescolonist.com

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