Sex workers in Victoria get by with little help from their friends

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UPDATE: According to the PEERS website (safersexwork.ca), the PEERS drop-in centre is now only open for a couple of hours one day a week, due to funding cuts. While its Elements program remains suspended for the time being, it is still providing its Night Outreach service. —News Editor Taryn Brownell

 

A Google search for escort services in Victoria results in four agency pages and a number of independent operators who use titles such as “elite courtesan” and “independent licence escort.” What is not so obvious, however, is the difficulty in moving from the sex trade to mainstream employment, which has been made harder by the B.C. government’s funding changes to the Prostitution Empowerment Education and Resource Society (PEERS), which has changed from directly funded to semi-annual one-time budgets. A 50 per cent cut in the organization’s monthly operational budget has forced PEERS to scale back operations, close its walk-in office and shut down its six-month pre-employment program, ELEMENTS, which included counselling for drug addiction, personal planning and career, and interview advising five days a week, with one day of personal one-on-one counselling, coaching, and support work.

According to a phone interview with PEERS Executive Director Marion Little, the program funding changes were made in 2012, moving the organization into a subcontract through three other provincial agencies. PEERS now reports to the Employment Program of B.C. (EPBC) under the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation, which has made funding structure changes and cuts (from a monthly budget of $32 000 to $16 000) and changed the application process for PEERS clients. According to Little, the changes included adapting to semi-annual budgets instead of monthly grants that PEERS could previously apply for as needed.

Little says this new arrangement does not provide specialized or specific funding for PEERS. As the fee for services is only submitted once a year, it creates cash flow problems. She says the funding is not given upfront at the start of the year, causing several PEERS services to be cut. Also, EPBC requires the personal information of program users. This has caused some hesitancy among PEERS clients, who previously could rely on anonymity. Now, however, multiple government agencies may have access to sensitive personal information about clients.

After all these changes, there has been a dramatic drop in services for sex workers trying to get out of the life. In August, PEERS was handling 45 clients through its various programs, and as of mid-January interview, only four had been placed in similar programs run by the provincial government. One was referred to a similar program in August, and three had since been placed in other programs (the other 41 have not been placed, according to Little).

PEERS limited its service times to a few hours twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays; however, its day and night outreach programs will continue due to separate funding from the Vancouver Island Health Authority, B.C. Gaming Commission, United Way and private donors. PEERS will continue to conduct nightly needle exchanges and provide condoms, food, coffee, and a safe place to report assaults. Daytime services of transport to appointments with government officials, court appearances, doctor appointments, hospital, and detox visits will continue.

This reduction in services has raised concern with the Victoria Police Department’s Special Victims Unit and AIDS Vancouver Island. At this time, there is little indication that the provincial government will change its stance on funding or administrative changes.

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