CJF 2012 AWARD-WINNER: Christmas in Vancouver’s brothels & sex work strolls

cjf-award-logoPublished in the Vancouver Observer  |  December 24, 2011  |  Circulation: 100,000 average monthly readers

Co-winning submission, Canadian Journalism Foundation 2012 Excellence in Journalism Award (small media)

Jennifer Allan, founder of Jen’s Kitchen, prepares a sandwich to deliver to sex workers. Photo by David P. Ball.

During the holiday season, there’s a lot of talk about helping the poor and less fortunate. We are often reminded that Christmas is about generosity and giving.

And though many make charitable donations or volunteer at this time of the year, we at the Vancouver Observer wondered what the holiday season is like for survival sex workers – among our city’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities.

Invited by Jen’s Kitchen – a food, outreach and advocacy organization we profiled on December 6 – VO met women on the Downtown Eastside’s street strolls, an illegal brothel and a government-run transitional housing agency one rainy and cold night.

“On Christmas day, it’s sad to be a sex industry worker,” said Jennifer Allan, a former sex worker herself and founder of Jen’s Kitchen. “Everyone else has food and gifts, and you really feel left out.

“You don’t have any money – and often your family’s passed on or you can’t get along with them. Or they might say, ‘Sure, you’re welcome to come home for Christmas dinner.’ But the thing about Christmas dinner is you’ve got to hear about how you shouldn’t be out on the street – it’s not really a nice Christmas dinner to have.”

Allan took the Vancouver Observer on an exclusive tour of the Downtown Eastside, delivering more than 50 lunch bags and safer drug paraphernalia – and along the way she shared her vision of how the city could better support survival sex workers.

That vision includes a 24-hour crisis counselling and drop-in centre for workers, categorizing violence against sex workers as a hate crime, offering more services for people who want to exit the sex industry, and opening a sex worker-only emergency shelter.

In September, the city released a report on the sex industry, which revealed that Vancouver has 1,000-2,000 street sex workers, but that is likely only about 20 per cent of the overall industry. Sex work has a racial component as well: 40 per cent of street sex workers are Indigenous (despite making up two per cent of the population); an estimated 40 per cent of indoor sex workers are women of colour.

Here is what VO discovered about spending the holidays on the strolls and in the brothels.

6:30 p.m.
We first hit the grocery store. Allan – who started Jen’s Kitchen in 2004, initially delivering 12 sandwiches and 12 condoms – has grown her project into a regular outreach service which delivers food hampers, Christmas gifts, clean needles and drug paraphernalia to survival sex trade workers on the street and in brothels, as well as supporting women getting out of prison and single mothers.

She moves nimbly through the aisles, shopping for the best bargains and ingredients that will pack the most nutrients into one sandwich. Tonight, she decides, we’re making lunch bags with tuna salad sandwiches and apple juice — “the apple counteracts cocaine psychosis,” she explains as she drops several 10-packs into my basket.

7:00 p.m.
Heading back to Allan’s tiny bachelor apartment in a West End social housing complex, we begin a several-hour assembly line of sandwiches. She makes me chop the onions – a task I don’t mind despite the tears, having worked in restaurant kitchens. She throws Aerosmith on the stereo as we chop, mix, construct and bag the ingredients – ‘Living on the Edge’ plays several times as the album repeats.

Allan shares stories from her nine years working in the survival sex industry – from the street corners, to brothels and for pimps.

One December, in Calgary, Allan was working the streets in a snow storm when police stopped her.

“I remember standing out there freezing my ass off,” she laughs. “Out on the street, you don’t have time to worry about the cold. Even in a blizzard, you put a skirt on.

“So I was outside in this blizzard, I was standing there and the police came and said, ‘Can we give you a ride home? It’s too late, go home – there’s a blizzard outside!’”

Allan describes the hard rules and realities sex workers live by – but in the midst of sometimes fierce competition and drug-and-poverty-fuelled violence, you can often find community, mutual aid and a sense of family.

“When you’re out on the street and get into a car, if you can see another worker, that worker can take down the license plate,” she says. And at a time when she herself worked in a brothel, she remembers delivering Christmas dinners to the other women on her floor. On the street, one senior worker even forced the other women to attend weekly meetings to discuss issues arising in their community.

But the picture in the survival sex industry is not, by any stretch, rosy. Allan’s best friend was murdered, women she knew in Vancouver went missing, and she herself was sexually assaulted. And while she acknowledges the survival sex industry is plagued by violence, she argues that workers need to be provided with safe working conditions, protection and supportive services.

“The sex industry is inherently violent, and no matter what safety plan you put in place, there is danger,” she explains. “There’s no safety plan you can put in place that will prevent it.

“Even sex workers who work indoors — guys are coming and raping and bear-spraying them in the brothels. You have to be alert 24 hours a day. You can never let your guard down. In the survival sex trade, your body has to be always on guard – you’re in fight-or-flight mode — and as a result, you develop post-traumatic stress or panic disorders. One of the ways you cope is to use drugs or alcohol.”

9:00 p.m.
After loading at least 50 sandwiches and juice boxes into brown paper lunch bags – the kind kids take to school – we wash up and dress warmly for the night ahead. Our first stop is right at the core of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) – an illegal, underground brothel operated in plain sight as a “hotel.”

On the way, Allan describes how she delivers turkey dinners and gift packages to sex workers every Christmas.

“The thing about being a survival sex worker on Christmas day — people don’t think about the drug addict on the street,” she says. “They don’t wonder, ‘I wonder if those people will eat today?’

“I give them turkey dinners, with potatoes and stuffing. We’re cooking for six hours straight. We also give out Christmas bags to workers and we make 40 dinners, which we take out to women on the street and in the brothels.”

In the past, Jen’s Kitchen gift packages included make-up, chocolates, as well as needed supplies like toiletries, shampoo, and condoms.

“One Christmas, I was giving out presents in the brothels, and I gave the security guard a snow-globe,” she remembers, chuckling. “He was thrilled with it!

“He was like, ‘No way! This is the best thing in the world.’ Here he is, doing security for a brothel — who’d think he’d want a snow-globe for Christmas?! But he was as happy as can be.”

9:30 p.m.
We arrive at the door of the underground brothel as the night’s drizzle turns into a light rain. An elderly man with a baseball cap stands out front, a cigarette hanging limply from his lip. Evidently he’s the “hotel” guard, but he doesn’t look at all muscly – certainly not my preconception of a beefy Hell’s Angel bouncer (I’m told this brothel is not run by organized crime).

“How you doing?” he asks, shaking our hands.

“Good. This is my friend David,” she replies.

“Quick,” the guard says, “come in and get dry — you can dry off inside.”

He opens the door for us, and we ascend a staircase. The walls are yellow and white, and at the top I see a single brightly lit corridor with doors all the way along. Loud techno music thumps from one room. The linoleum floor is peeling in places.

The window labelled “Manager” is boarded up, but the office door is open and two people – in their early twenties, I guess — sit around a desk. One of them is a woman dressed from head-to-toe in a pink velvet sweatsuit; I can see most of her bra. She smiles as we offer a bag of sandwiches for the workers, and runs between rooms along the corridor, returning with a sealed bucket of used drug needles.

Allan asks what supplies the brothel needs, and the young man with facial piercings in the office opens a small cupboard full of white labelled boxes.

“Everything except cookers,” he replies, referring to metal vestibules used to heat heroin.

9:45 p.m.
We take the needle bins down the street to a dark alley which hosts the Washington Needle Exchange. A teenage boy – texting on his smartphone — guards the alley under an umbrella. He questions our visit like a customs agent. We’re doing outreach to sex workers, Allen explains, and the young man waves us through after requesting a cigarette, signalling to another man at the other end of the alley that we’re okay; the other guard disappears into the shadows.

“It has to do with dealing,” Allan explains. “If you don’t look like you belong in the alley, they’ll stop you. That’s why he was like, ‘Who are you? What are you doing in my alley?’ Usually with outreach, they’re quite okay.”

Inside the needle exchange, the staff person stocks us up with condoms, needles, crack pipe mouthpieces, alcohol swabs, and rubber straps to enlarge injection user’s veins.

We walk back to the brothel, supplies in hand. I mistakenly approach the wrong doorway – where the woman in pink is hovering – and Allan warns me not to stop: it’s a drug den, and if you’re not known to the dealers inside, you’d best not loiter.

Inside, a few more people are around the manager’s office – some munching eagerly on tuna sandwiches. The owner, a middle-aged portly man, is there too and thanks us for the lunches. On a previous visit, Allan says, he told her his hotel offers a safer place than the street for women to work – at a cost of only $20 an hour. If women are homeless, he often lets them stay in the rooms overnight, since the place closes at midnight anyway.

On Christmas Day, however, this illegal brothel plans to open for 24 hours — ostensibly to provide women with shelter on the holiday (but on the other hand, it provides johns with 24 hour sex). And on top of Allan’s gift bags of hygiene products, shampoo, make-up and chocolates, another donor dropped off platters of meat and pastries as a gift.

“How do you make sure someone has a merry Christmas if a brothel is open 24 hours?” Allan asks, somewhat rhetorically. “It’s kind of funny.”
10:00 p.m.
Allan guides me down a side-street off Hastings – pointing out along the way the large entrance of an abandoned building. It’s here that she slept when she started working the Vancouver streets, and she and other workers slept in the doorway with their drug dealer for protection.

We approach a woman on a corner who looks in her late twenties. She’s my classic image of a street worker: tall leather high-heel boots, extraordinarily short skirt, and cleavage that looks painfully cold in the chilly climate. Her Vancouver twist on the trade is a large, black umbrella.

“Are you hungry?” Allan asks.

“Umm, yeah — a little bit,” she replies, smiling.

“Would you like a sandwich and a juice box?”

“Oh, sure. Awesome, thank you guys very much.”

10:15 p.m.
We approach another worker – this one seems in her late teens, no umbrella, but at least she has a sweater. Her skirt, however, is even shorter than the first’s. She readily accepts a lunch bag and giggles as she says thank you.

Allan explains that most of the side streets north of Hastings are sex worker strolls, as well as the strip of Cordova Street east of Main. Further east, the architecture changes to factories along the railway tracks, and we approach a woman slightly older than the others — she’s hugs her arms together from the cold as she excitedly recognizes Allan. They’ve been friends since both working the streets.

“Hey! how are you?” Allan greets her. “Would you like a lunch?”

“Sure!” she says, smiling broadly. “How’s it going girl? Merry Christmas!”

Allan hands her a bad date sheet we picked up from a couple outreach workers – the sheet lists suspicious or dangerous men who have been reported lately by sex workers – and includes a photo of convicted serial killer Robert Pickton’s brother, Dave, who they said had been reported by several workers in the area.

“They show the picture, eh? Of his brother?” the worker asks.

“Yeah, that’s Robert Pickton’s brother,” Allan replies. “You have to watch for him – and if you see him, call the police to come get him. He’s not supposed to be down here.”

“They should put his face on a Batman fuckin’ light in the sky,” the woman jokes. “He’s a fuckin’ freak, man.”

“How’s it going tonight?” I inquire.

“Pretty fuckin’ boring,” she replies as a car drives by and slows down, and she points to Allan, laughing. “Oh, now they’re fuckin’ showing up ’cause she’s shown up!”

The woman explains that she lost her jacket earlier in the evening, but when Allan mentions warming up in the brothel, she laughs.

“Oh, I don’t do lays,” she says, warmly hugging Allan and then me (she has a boyfriend, Allan explains, so she now just does handjobs and blowjobs). “How you doing?”

I ask her about how she copes with the cold nights like this.

“You know what, I don’t mind – I don’t give a shit,” she says. “Like, I’m happy out here. It’s usually pretty interesting.”

10:30 p.m.
The next worker we encounter stands on the other side of the railway tracks, on what Allan refers to as the “Tranny Stroll,” where transgender sex workers tend to wait for clients (“tranny” is generally considered an offensive name in the transgender community). We meet a tall, striking woman with a colourful umbrella.

It’s a quiet night, she explains – no customers yet. She’ll have to pack it in soon if no one comes. When we later pass over the tracks on the Hastings overpass, I glance down and see her alone amidst the warehouses and factories as a freight train roars past. In the dark, this person — who struck me as strong, outgoing and warm – seems small, isolated and vulnerable by the railway tracks.

11:00 p.m.
We head back towards Cordova Street, and eventually approach a skinny woman stumbling on the sidewalk, carrying a stack of white puffy jackets which she’s selling. She lives in a nearby women’s transitional housing complex – what some critics refer to as one of several “government-run brothels.” Technically, the Vivian Transitional Housing Program for Women is not a brothel – it offers housing and support staff for 24 women considered “high-risk,” providing security, shelter, and support for women most at risk of abuse and violence.

A staff person welcomes us in, and explains that Vivian House was opened in 2006 by RainCity Housing — the building is the lowest-barrier shelter for drug-addicted sex workers – and allows them to work out of their rooms and do drugs on site.

“These are women with mental health needs and drug addictions,” says the other staff person. Behind the front desk, a computer monitor displays scenes from security cameras around the building. Outside the office are plastic drawers of needles and other drug paraphernalia.

“Our harm-reduction supplies are all right there,” she continues. “For women in the neighbourhood, they can come and knock on our door and access all the supplies. But only guests are allowed inside the building.”

The first staff person’s eyes light up when Allan asks if the residents would appreciate presents around Christmas-time – especially the suggestion of including chocolates in the gift bags. “They’d just LOVE that so much.”

Allowing survival sex workers to bring clients into the government-funded program has caused much controversy since it opened, but after the Vancouver Courier published a scathing criticism of the project earlier this year, several residents responded with letters to the paper praising Vivian house.

“I moved into the Vivian just before Christmas and that would have been my first Christmas that I got gifts and got experience a Christmas for the first time in my whole life,” wrote 25-year old Shannon G. “I’ve learned to be a better person and be more stable.

“I’m learning how to be more independent and interact with people. I’m learning a lot about respecting others and that we all live here and work together. This is our home. It’s a safe place for all of us. If we didn’t have this here we wouldn’t have nothing.”

After we drop off the last of our lunch bags, the woman with the puffy jackets invites us to visit with her in her room — “It’s just up here,” she says, pointing to the Vivian building. But the project is for residents and their clients only, and we politely decline.

Making our way back to Hastings Street, we meet a few more workers, as well as groups of roving young men in nice jackets, freshly emerged from the bars. They’re not from the neighbourhood, Allan explains, but an increase in upscale bars in the DTES — part of the process of gentrification — has led to an increase in drunken harassment of sex workers, she says.

As we continue west, I also notice several of the women we met tonight walking with our brown paper lunch bags in their arms.
11:30 p.m.
The rain is pouring down profusely as we return to Allan’s home – from which she runs Jen’s Kitchen from her own pocket and occasional donations – and as I reflect on my soaking wet shoes, Allan reflects on our experience in Vancouver’s brothels and on the strolls.

“Thank you for coming out,” she says, fatigue from a long day creeping into her voice. “This was a pretty quiet night – but it’s good to get more educated about the Downtown Eastside.

“This is normal for me – to go into underground brothels and back alleys, past drug dealers and into needle depots. I hope people can come to understand what people deal with down here.”

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