Responsive and Resilient Vancouver Non-Profit Celebrates 40 Years of Service

Responsive and Resilient Vancouver Non-Profit Celebrates 40 Years of Service

As featured in Global Heroes.

Have you ever been faced with an impossible choice?

Everyone deserves the opportunity to make free, healthy, and positive choices—but the people WISH Drop-In Centre Society exists to serve are often denied that fundamental right.

Based in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, on the unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, WISH’s connection to the land is central to the work they do and their efforts to decolonize that work.

WISH is the largest sex worker support organization in Canada, and has been a refuge and an essential point of contact for street-based sex workers since 1984, working to improve their health, safety, and well-being through rights, not rescue.

It’s About Choice

WISH puts this mission into action through direct service programs, including their nightly drop-in, first-of-its-kind emergency shelter, and Mobile Access Project (MAP) Van.

Participants also have access to capacity-building programs, including Indigenous Health & Safety, InReach one-to-one support, Learning Centre, Music Therapy, and Supportive Employment.

wish drop-in centre society
Photo © Courtesy of WISH

“Thank you for caring about me when I couldn’t do it for myself. Amazing people.” — WISH participant

Each day and night, approximately 350 women and gender-diverse folks depend on WISH to meet their most essential needs, like a warm meal or a hot shower, and to access wrap-around supports that help create lasting change. Staff have become participants’ primary resources for help navigating through increasingly complicated matters and receive hundreds of requests for support every week.

Trust, Care & Respect

Many of those who walk through the doors at WISH have experienced targeted, gender-based, and sexualized violence and are often dehumanized because of the work they do. They have faced significant discrimination due to systemic inequities and continue to be impacted by the criminalized nature of Canada’s laws surrounding sex work.

WISH is a non-judgmental place of compassion and trust where all women are valued. This trust, care, and respect is the foundation needed for participants to build relationships with staff and peers and to increase connections to the community.

“We just want to live our lives. We just want to raise our children, we just want to be happy, healthy, productive people.” — WISH participant

© Courtesy of WISH

Human rights groups around the world continue to call for the decriminalization of all aspects of adult consensual sex work. Until all sex workers have access to the rights they deserve, WISH will be there, actively pushing back against the forces of sexism, racism, sex work stigma, and the impacts of colonization.

For street-based sex workers who need support, but who have experienced negative interactions with authorities, WISH is a safe haven.

Your Help is Needed

Donors who give to WISH are standing in solidarity with sex workers. They know sex work is work, and that sex worker rights are human rights—and these donors make WISH happen!

“What matters most to me is that you continue to reach and support sex workers where they are and follow their lead in advocating for them and offering them care.” — WISH Donor

WISH continues to be a leader in the sector, thanks to an incredibly committed team of staff, volunteers, and donors dedicated to meeting the dire needs of the community.

It has taken tremendous effort to reach this milestone. For the last 40 years, it’s been extremely challenging
to keep up with the immense demand for services as conditions in the community continue to worsen. With your help, WISH can provide essential support for as long as needed.

Please give generously today to support this important work. Learn more at wish-vancouver.net.

IHSP celebrates one year of Sex Worker Circle

IHSP celebrates one year of Sex Worker Circle

June 6, 2023 marks the one-year anniversary of WISH’s Sex Worker Circle (SWC), held as part of our Indigenous Health & Safety Program. The Circle is a safe, dedicated space for participants who are current and active street-based sex workers.  

The methodical and purposeful approach to creating SWC took months to develop and implement. It is extremely important to ensure the program is low-barrier and Indigenous peer-led. From day one, the priority has been to create a safe and growth-facilitating environment that includes two significant pieces, a sex worker engagement activity and a Talking Circle.  

The sex worker engagement activity changes every week but always invites participants to use their creativity. This can include fabric arts like bedazzling, dying and sewing working clothes; make-up sessions and tutorials with free cosmetics; creating sex worker safety kits; or enjoying guest speakers and peer training.

The second aspect of Sex Worker Circle involves a Talking Circle, which allows for the space needed to provide skill development such as public speaking and de-escalation training and holding trauma-informed conversations. The topics of each Talking Circle focus on sex work and safety; some of the most recent topics included:  

  • How can we stay safe in a date’s vehicle? 
  • How can compassion look like safety for sex workers? 
  • How to use the Buddy-System in today’s sex work. 

Before the start of each SWC, peers get together to assign tasks. All sessions then begin with smudging and end with a gratitude circle.   

Building collective power for sex workers is a key priority at WISH. Since launching a year ago, SWC has seen over 400 visits, speaking to the community’s need for this type of opportunity and safe space. During that time, 12 peers have also been trained, while others are currently completing training.  

Visit the IHSP page on our website to learn more about the SWC. You can also find more information about opportunities for participants at WISH each month in our Drop-In Calendar, posted on the Drop-In Centre Program page. 

“I Had No Choices”

“I Had No Choices” – Hear directly from a WISH Supervisor

Choice is a loaded word. Many of the participants who walk through our doors face limited options. When Avery Gray* was living in a tent on Alexander Street, she didn’t know what WISH was. One freezing night, she was invited into the drop-in for a hot chocolate and decided to check it out.

“I didn’t share any details of the work I did at all because I just felt that if I, you know, made enemies with even my closest friends, that they would somehow rat me out to the ministry and it would go against me and my kids, right?” she shared.

Avery Gray describes how experiencing homelessness and living with substance use severely limited her options, “I had no choices at that time,” and even now she says, “I don’t really know what got me through it to be honest with you. Things kinda just started slowly day by day, increasingly getting better and better and a lot of that is because the support I got from here.”

Having support available when she needed it made a difference, “anytime that any, you know, upsetting situations happened or anything, I’d be able to come here at any hour of the day. Like midnight, three in the morning, anytime, and [ WISH ] was always here.”

Avery Gray is modest about her accomplishments, but her journey is truly incredible. After joining WISH’s Supportive Employment Program, she found work that she enjoys and is great at. Now, she has progressed from an entry-level role to become a program supervisor at WISH, overseeing nearly 40 employees.

“I guess I’m the first one that’s kind of gone from participant into management and that is my dream to have every participant here just succeed so much that these are options for them.”

Having staff with personal experience of what it’s like to access services at WISH is immensely valuable to those depending on WISH. Avery Gray knows firsthand how “it takes somebody to feel welcome before they feel that they have choice or options to do anything else.”

To do this, we need to create opportunities that meaningfully engage street-based sex workers, while prioritizing their safety, autonomy, and self-determination.

“I definitely am starting more and more to feel like, oh, I could be this somewhere else too. It’s not just here. I’m valuable everywhere, right?… I can do it, so I think everybody else can.”

*Alias used to protect confidentiality

 

Providing Essential Support and Opportunities in Times of Chaos

Providing Essential Support and Opportunities in Times of Chaos

As featured in Global Heroes.

While many communities are moving on from the pandemic, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic is still acutely felt. To make matters worse, this community continues to face multiple crises, including the ongoing opioid crisis, worsening homelessness, and escalating gender-based violence.

Street-based sex workers continue to fall through the cracks. That’s why the services available at the WISH Drop-In Centre Society are so critical. For more than 35 years, WISH has been working to ensure that women and gender-diverse street-based sex workers have the resources and supports needed to make free, healthy, and positive choices.

“It’s often the choice of taking an unsafe date or going home with no money and having to worry about all the things you can’t afford.” —WISH participant

At a time when many social service agencies were closing their doors, WISH not only remained open, but expanded services to meet the sharp increase in demand. WISH’s Mobile Access Project Van added a second shift, the Drop-In expanded operating hours, and WISH opened Canada’s first ever 24/7 shelter for sex workers. These changes helped participants meet their most immediate and urgent needs.

But street-based sex workers rely on WISH for much more than just the urgent. Staff have become participants’ primary help navigating through increasingly complicated matters—dealing with hundreds of requests for support every week.

Each day and night, approximately 350 women and gender-diverse folks come to WISH for support and services.

Many of those who walk through the doors have experienced targeted, gender-based, and sexualized violence due to the criminalized nature of Canada’s “prostitution” laws. They have physical and mental health issues related to violence, chronic trauma, and other effects of homelessness and poverty. As a result, they face significant discrimination and are hesitant to engage with the support services they need.

“We just want to live our lives. We just want to raise our children, we just want to be happy, healthy, productive people but how do you do that?” —WISH participant

wish drop-in centre
© Wendy D. Photography

Being able to get one-to-one, longer-term support is vital to participants’ ability to make free choices and have stability in their lives. This support is provided by WISH’s Inreach team (which includes a dedicated Housing Worker), Indigenous Health and Safety Program, Music Therapy, and Supportive Employment Program.

Did you know…

  • More than 70 per cent of those who come to WISH live with disabilities
  • 80 per cent are unhoused or precariously housed
  • 90 per cent struggle with mental health and/or substance use issues
  • All face stigma and discrimination when trying to access services
  • Street-based sex workers are seven times more likely to face a violent death

As the Downtown Eastside continues to grapple with multiple crises, your support is crucial in ensuring sex workers do not face a reduction in services. WISH’s largest fundraising campaign of the year is launching this Giving Tuesday on Nov. 29th. Can they count on your support?

Spotlight – WISH’s in-house Elder

Spotlight on WISH’s in-house Elder

Kwaakwii, also known as Elder Terri, is a proud Haida woman from Haida Gwaii, who came to the Lower Mainland about 30 years ago.

“I moved down here to help with my grandchildren,” Elder Terri explains. “My most rewarding role in life is being a single mom of my beautiful daughter and my amazing son. They continue to teach me and give me strength and courage to rise to the occasion to become the mom and woman that I strive to be.”

Elder Terri first came WISH three years ago when her sister told her about an Indigenous-led program. “I was glad that there was a program like that for our women to get back to their traditions and culture and sharing that with them,” she says.

Her journey began as a participant in the program and in less than three years she became WISH’s in-house Elder. “I take immense pride and honour in my role of residential Elder here at WISH,” she shares. She now helps guide the program in addition to attending group sessions to offer support and teachings to participants.

“I bring diverse experiences working with health care, legal, and non-profit organizations, and it is especially here where I thrive and feel a sense of belonging. I have gained resilience, courage, and strength through my own personal struggles and continue to develop my personal and professional life by being mindful, aware, empathetic and compassionate,” Elder Terri adds. “I believe taking a culturally-centred approach means listening and softening the heart.”

Elder Terri is at WISH five days a week. When asked what she would like others to know about IHSP she highlights the importance of healing.

“The healing part was really important for me. It changed my life. The cultural activities validated me. I feel like I am a better Elder since taking the program,” she explains.

“I know there are a lot of ladies out there that don’t know where they are from and that, in itself, can be very emotional, even just talking about it gets emotional for me,” she adds. “I still meet a lot of women that are First Nations but they don’t have a clue about their Nation and try to point them into the direction of Residential School Survivors Groups where there are a lot of Elders from different Nations and that, in itself, is a stepping stone for them.”

When asked what being a resident Elder means to her, she mentions the joy it brings her to contribute her knowledge and wisdom to the community.

Improving Support for Indigenous Participants

Improving Support for Indigenous Participants

This spring, we are proud to be re-launching our Indigenous Health & Safety Program (IHSP) at WISH. The IHSP is a recurring six-month-long program that runs twice a year and is one of three streams that WISH’s Indigenous Health and Safety focuses on: Indigenous Drop-In; Indigenous In-Reach Services and; and IHSP.

The program offers cultural healing that centres participants’ mental, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being. It uplifts participants’ lived experience, knowledge, and expertise. It also provides culturally-safe one-on-one support, connecting participants with other services at WISH such as the shelter, Supportive Employment Program, Music Therapy, and Learning Centre.

Pictured in the middle, Matriarchs Carleen Thomas from Tsleil-Waututh
Nation, Clarissa Antone from Squamish Nation, and Mary Point from Musqueam
Nation, join WISH on the National Day for Truth & Reconciliation, offering
blessings to continue doing our work on their lands.

IHSP also supports participants when navigating systems like housing, child welfare, health, and substance misuse services.

The program is trauma-informed, which means it addresses the specific realities and trauma of survival sex work, while affirming participants’ inherent right to dignity and self-determination, wherever they are in their journey.

Through reclamation of traditional healing, alongside culturally-safe support and advocacy, the program addresses the impacts of daily colonial violence on the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health of Indigenous participants. It is a space to reclaim community care, self-love, joy, creativity, and self-determination.

The history of IHSP

IHSP has a long history of working with Indigenous sex workers in the DTES. Starting in 2008, Around the Kitchen Table was an Indigenous-led program with a two-fold goal: 1) To gain knowledge of cultural identity and; 2) Share their skills and knowledge by serving as Peer assistants for both Indigenous and Non-Indigenous sex workers.

By 2013, the then-named Aboriginal Culture & Creativity Program expanded its services and re-established under the then-named Aboriginal Health & Safety Program (AHSP). The program was offered two days per week with the intent of creating safety and health opportunities for street-based sex workers. Since then, the program has had more than 180 Indigenous participants.

But this came to a halt in March 2020. Due to COVID-19 and the ongoing opioid crisis, IHSP had to change and focus on outreach services. However, WISH took this opportunity to engage as many participants as possible in conversations and focus groups to redesign the program to best meet the needs of Indigenous street-based sex workers.

The re-design and re-launch of the program began with the creation of a Manager of Indigenous Inclusion position and the creation of two additional positions: An Indigenous In-Reach worker and an IHSP Supervisor. The reopening of the classroom will allow for a re-envisioning of what programming looks like when it is grounded in ceremony, supporting participants to reclaim connection to culture, land, and language.

Delivered by Indigenous staff, Elders, and peers, IHSP will focus on offering a space to reclaim community care, self-love, joy, creativity, and self-determination.

First of its kind emergency shelter for street-based sex workers celebrates one year since opening in Vancouver

One year after Canada’s first 24/7 shelter for sex workers opened overwhelming demand continues

It’s hard to believe it’s been one year since WISH opened the doors to Canada’s first-ever 24/7 temporary emergency shelter for street-based sex workers. The overwhelming demand for the space continues to highlight the urgent need for housing and safe spaces for women and gender diverse people.

“I feel safe sleeping…grateful just to have a place to sleep.” – Shelter resident.

The low-barrier shelter has been operating at capacity since day one. Sadly, this means participants are turned away every single day, highlighting the critical need for shelter and safe spaces in the Downtown Eastside. Unable to meet demand, dozens of participants continue to routinely use WISH’s drop-in and outdoor safe respite area to spend the night.

Since opening day:

In the last year, a total of 119 people used the 23 beds available; the low turnover rate once again highlights the overwhelming demand for long-term housing.    

The temporary shelter opened its doors thanks to the critical support of BC Housing and the City of Vancouver. The space provides 23 beds along with hot showers, laundry, meals, and critical access to WISH’s supporting programs and services. Thanks to the shelter, more than 70% of residents surveyed reported fewer instances of violence and the ability to turn down dangerous work.

“Celebrating this milestone is bittersweet,” said WISH’s Executive Director Mebrat Beyene. “The need for a shelter like this has existed for years and we’re thrilled to have brought it to fruition. But, there is still so much need for additional shelter spaces and housing options for sex workers; particularly women and gender diverse people. A year from now, we hope to celebrate that a significant number of street-based sex workers have secured safe, affordable, and appropriate longer-term housing.”

Spaces like the shelter continue to be critical—now more than ever. We continue to advocate for and work towards a larger, permanent, and purpose-built shelter for street-based sex workers.

Kilala Lelum’s mobile clinic visits to WISH showcase critical need for co-location of services

Kilala Lelum’s mobile clinic visits to WISH showcase critical need for co-location of services

It’s been nearly eight months since Kilala Lelum launched its mobile clinic to provide primary care and cultural wellness outreach to the Downtown Eastside (DTES) community.

The mobile clinic helped fill a critical gap at WISH, where the Drop-In Centre clinic remains unused due to a lack of medical staff.

WISH is one of many community partners working with Kilala Lelum’s Mobile Outreach Program. The mobile clinic focuses on primary care outreach drop-in clinics three times a week. At WISH, the mobile clinic visits twice a month — once with a physician, and once with the support of a nurse and an Indigenous Knowledge Keeper. Despite this, there is still a critical need for more physician sessions at WISH. Additional funding and/or onsite deployment from the health authorities is needed so that participants can have regular access to the drop-in clinic.

The mobile clinic was established as a means of responding to gaps within the current healthcare system, recognizing that many individuals benefit from care in an outreach setting that is trauma-informed, culturally safe, and low barrier.

At WISH, at least half of the participants the mobile clinic sees reside in our new temporary emergency shelter. Being able to contact residents at the shelter for follow-ups, specialist appointments, or prescription delivery, has been instrumental in mitigating some of the systemic barriers WISH participants often face.

The mobile clinic has highlighted the critical need for the co-location of services. Bringing services to the locations where people feel safe and are already accessing multiple services, as well as adapting to the context that people are already in, is a crucial step that is often missed by the health care system.

“People need to be met where they are at. There are so many intersecting barriers to accessing culturally safe primary care for the community served by WISH,” said Dr. Emma Preston. “Kilala Lelum is committed to providing low barrier access to culturally safe, healing centred primary care for folks engaged in sex trade work by co-locating services during the dual crises of the COVID 19 pandemic and the opioid overdose epidemic as part of decolonizing medicine.”

For communities and people who face systemic barriers, stigma and discrimination — such as street-based sex workers — accessing mainstream hospitals or clinics can present multiple barriers and result in avoidance. People should be able to receive care in a setting in which they feel safe and with practitioners they feel they can trust.

Although the mobile clinic was launched late last year, the fixed location clinic (Kilala Lelum Health Centre) has been around for almost three years. The clinic was created in part as a response to the TRC’s calls to action around the Health of Indigenous people, using a lens of cultural safety and working to decolonize a very colonized space — healthcare.

The team at Kilala Lelum Health Centre is made up of over 70 individuals – including family physicians, a nurse practitioner, nurses, counselors, social workers, outreach workers, nutritionists, peer community health workers, Indigenous Elders and cultural wellness workers.

The current health system has failed — and continues to fail — those who have been made vulnerable due to poverty, homelessness, trauma, gender-based violence, stigma, and a lack of access to support and opportunities.

The Mobile Outreach Program is currently funded by the Telus Health for Good initiative until March 2023. Funding and support for the continuation, and expansion, of the Kilala Lelum mobile clinic program is vital, as well as the creation of more outreach programs modelled after it.

The system has failed WISH participants, and others in the community, for too long. Enough is enough. It is time to act.

MAP Van celebrates one year of critical day shift

What a difference a day makes…

It’s been one year since the MAP Van day shift began operating in response to an increased demand for our trauma-informed and harm reduction supports and services. 

The MAP Van has provided essential services for woman-identified street-based sex workers across the City of Vancouver for 17 years. However, 2020 proved to be a year like no other. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the escalating opioid crisis, and the inequitable rates of violence and discrimination against street-based sex workers meant the community we serve needed the MAP Van more than ever.  

“Thank God!! I am so excited to hear that. It makes such a big difference for you all to come see me.” – MAP Van participant, responding to news of the new day shift

The creation of a day shift not only allows the van to operate 15 hours in total every dayrather than the original six overnight hours, but it also allows us to reach a new community of street-based sex workers who face extreme barriers when accessing supports.  

Within one month of operation, the day shift began to serve as many sex workers as the night shift. In just one year, demand for day-time services quickly grew, with staff seeing greater demand for harm reduction supplies, food, and drinks during the day than during the night shift.  

Day shift staff had more than 10,419 interactions in one year

Additionally, the day shift allows the MAP Van to spend more time visiting various hotels, SROs, and other supportive housing buildings than we are able to at night. This change has enabled van staff to maintain connections with participants relocated outside of the DTES as part of COVID-related housing initiatives and establish and deepen relationships with external service providers. 

Amid a deadly overdose crisis due to an increasingly toxic drug supply, the need for overdose response also became a key element of the new shift, with staff responding to more overdose calls during the day than at night. In the last year alone, the day shift has given out more than 500 Narcan kits. 

What if the MAP Van stopped operating during the day? 

The MAP Van has developed unique and long-standing relationships with a diverse community of street-based sex workers across Vancouver. Extending our hours has expanded our capacity to support participants and has enhanced our ability to serve those we may not have been able to connect with at night.  

Over the last year, we have developed significant relationships with new participants who usually do not have a phone, access to transportation, or access to the very geographically specific service bubble that is the DTES. These participants have been structurally disconnected from many services, especially sex work-specific services.  

“I’m so grateful for having the van. I really depend on you and look forward to seeing you!” – MAP Van participant 

This past year has proven the need for a daytime shift, and WISH is committed to continuing this well-used and needed increased service. Losing the day shift would not only disconnect these community members from necessary and often lifesaving services, but it would significantly damage their trust in the reliability and accessibility of our services. We owe it to them to continue to provide services that physically and philosophically enact the core principles of harm reduction by meeting participants where they are at.

Click here to learn more about the MAP Van.

WISH’s shelter celebrates 6-month anniversary

WISH’s shelter celebrates its 6-month anniversary 

It’s been six months since WISH opened the doors to Canada’s first-ever 24/7 temporary emergency shelter for street-based sex workers. Since then, we’ve seen an overwhelming demand for the space, resulting in the shelter being at capacity since opening day. Sadly, this means women are turned away from the shelter every single day.  

Due to the shelter operating at capacity every single day, an average of 12 women continue to routinely use the drop-in as their primary place to safely sleep each night. Every night, our 24/7 outdoor safe respite area is also routinely used as a defacto shelter space by a number of street-based sex workers.   

While women make up about 47% of the DTES community, this percentage is not reflected in the amount of available safe spaces, housing, shelter beds, and drop-ins. There continues to be an overwhelming demand for women-only safe spaces. 

Thanks to the shelter, most residents have reported fewer instances of violence and, most critically, the ability to turn down potentially dangerous work. Since COVID has deeply affected the amount and availability of safer, street-based sex work, residents do not have to take on dangerous work in order to secure a place to stay. It has also meant avoiding extended hours on the street with little to no viable work leading to increased vulnerability to predators and negative interactions with police.   

“I was in an abusive arrangement, I was able to leave and be in a more healthy, safe environment at WISH. Safe and clean.” -Shelter resident.  

The shelter has allowed precariously housed and unhoused women in the sex trade to have a place to temporarily call home while continuing to access all the programs, services, and wraparound supports that WISH has to offer. Most residents reported living on the street, staying in unsafe relationships, staying in unsafe living conditions, and/or needing to trade sex for a place to stay before the shelter existed. 

“I’m not in a place of desperation anymore and can up my prices. I don’t have to exchange low-cost sex work for a place to stay.” -Shelter resident. 

The shelter officially opened its doors in November 2020, thanks to the critical support of BC Housing and the City of Vancouver. The space provides 23 beds along with hot showers, laundry, meals, and access to all the programs and services of WISH. 

Spaces like the shelter continue to be critical—now more than ever. The space has also highlighted, once again, the importance of co-locating programs and services to meet participants where they are at and adapting to the context that people are already in. This has been particularly crucial for our Inreach team, who are now better able to help shelter residents with medical needs, housing, referrals, legal support, income assistance, as well as emotional support.  

While this Shelter meets the increased, urgent needs exacerbated by COVID, WISH remains committed to addressing ongoing, unmet needs.  We continue to advocate for and work towards a larger, permanent, and purpose-built shelter for street-based sex workers.   

Shelter at a glance