It’s strange that PEERS (the Prostitute Education and Empowerment Resource Society) received an award from the Ministry of Justice for exemplary leadership in crime prevention and community safety.
Strange and ironic, because the Ministry of Justice is one of the many government ministries that turned their backs on the fine work PEERS does.
In late August, PEERS closed its drop-in doors due to lack of funds. I am concerned about the repercussions of this.
At the University of Victoria student orientation, I met Emma, a fan of PEERS. The quad was jam-packed with the typical 18- to 24-year-old students, munching on free burgers and scoping out the information booths and each other.
Emma said she remembered me from when she attended the 2012 convocation ceremony where activist and former Times Colonist journalist Jody Paterson received an honorary degree for her amazing social justice work. Emma had come to the ceremony because she admired Paterson’s work with PEERS.
As we talked, Emma told me she will be completing her master’s degree next year. She told me of the day she met Paterson. A friend had dragged her reluctantly through PEERS open doors one morning. She was tired and hungry and had just had a traumatic encounter, codespeak for assault, with one of her clients. She was a sex worker and had been since she was 17, following an abusive childhood in a small town up-Island.
Emma and I stood at the festive UVic orientation with tears running down our cheeks.
“Without a doubt, if I hadn’t got to PEERS that day, I would be dead or wishing I was,” she said.
So why are the doors closed now, and how could they be fully reopened? Funding for PEERS came through the Ministry of Social Development and was geared to an employment program. It is hard to capture, but imagine talking jobs to someone before they have food or medicine or secure housing or even good shoes. How about talking about preparing for an interview when you have just been assaulted? The PEERS drop-in services made it possible for someone’s daughter, sister or mother to feel accepted and cared for.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, has talked and then shouted about a system the B.C. government has implemented called Integrated Case Management. It does not work, but like a dry well, the government keeps digging and digging, trying to make it work.
Social-service agencies such as PEERS had to take staff from working directly with those who need them. Then they trained them do data entry and try to fit their complex trauma and counselling services into a system that thinks of people as cases to be managed, not people to be helped.
I have heard social workers say kids are being lost, ignored and neglected in this paperwork shuffle. This is equally true for the women using PEERS’ services.
Emma said she feared the sex workers she still knows are in equal danger while the data entry goes on and the doors are closed. One worker at PEERS had to do data entry full time. This data entry was her task, instead of helping women make safer life choices. What a waste.
Judge Wally Oppal released his report on the missing women of the Downtown Eastside last fall. In his recommendations, which the government supported, he said that there must be crisis-response services for sex workers.
Why, then, is PEERS not supported? There is a similar agency called WISH in Vancouver that was given core funding from the Ministry of Justice following the Oppal report. Why not PEERS and the 500 Victoria women who used crisis-response services every year?
No matter what your views about prostitution, it simply makes sense to offer support and alternatives to sex workers. It increases public safety when the PEERS women and staff can alert the police to serial and violent offenders. When a violent offender decides to hurt someone, it could be a shift worker headed home at night, it could be a UVic student coming back to campus after a fun evening downtown, or it could be a sex worker.
PEERS’ doors should be reopened and stay open. What PEERS has accomplished is phenomenal. Its success rate in working with women wherever they are on their life path is crucial.
No more inquiries costing millions. The women at PEERS should be congratulated for the award. Let’s pray that award came with a cheque. I doubt it did.
Prof. Barbara Whittington wrote this on behalf of the University of Victoria’s School of Social Work.