A new temporary Vancouver shelter offering street-based sex workers a safe, warm place to sleep 24 hours a day, seven days a week will soon be opening in the Downtown Eastside.
Run by WISH Drop-In Centre Society, this temporary shelter is set to open in approximately four to six weeks and will provide beds for 23 self-identifying sex working women (cis, trans) and two-spirit folks along with hot showers, laundry and meals. Some of the beds will be allocated to sex workers seeking short-term respite spaces, while the majority of the beds will be with a longer-term focus, while permanent housing solutions are found.
Mebrat Beyene, Executive Director of WISH, tells Vancouver Is Awesome in a phone interview that the shelter will have just over 20 beds, due to the maximum number of beds the facility can offer while still maintaining safe physical distancing. However, women have been been using the WISH drop-in centre as a safe place to rest for quite some time, and there is a high demand for shelter.
"There are so many women who have been using the WISH drop-in as a de facto shelter," explains Beyene. "Women would often sleep in the drop-in, but it means sleeping in armchairs, which I mean we can't really, really rest and we can't really get comfortable when your neck is contorted to sleep in those chairs.
“A shelter exclusively for sex workers has been a need for quite some time, but COVID has now deeply exacerbated the pre-existing crises of poverty, homelessness, and a poisoned drug supply. A temporary, emergency shelter like this is absolutely critical—now more than ever.”
While Beyene expects that all 23 beds will fill up quickly, she says that the organization will continue to try to accommodate those who do not get a bed.
"By the worst-case scenario, if all of this fills up extremely quickly we obviously can still accommodate women in the drop-in," she notes. "We make it work with whatever we have."
Precariously housed and unhoused women in the sex trade will now have a place to temporarily call home while continuing to access all the programs, services, and wraparound supports that WISH has to offer. Some of WISH’s capacity-building programs include literacy programming, supportive employment, transitioning/exiting/retiring supports, Indigenous programming, and music therapy.
People staying in the shelter will also have access to storage under their bed and a locker for their belongings. For those who may require long-term storage, WISH staff have access to a locked area for women who have left their belongings. The building is only accessible by buzzer, which allows women to feel more secure. Many of them may be fleeing abuse, or simply want to know they are sleeping in a safe space.
Due to the pandemic, Beyene says many sex workers have lost their main source of income and that violence against sex workers has increased. She adds that women are also returning to sex-based work who may have transitioned out of it, while others are turning to it for the first time.
With support from the City of Vancouver, WISH’s backlot also houses a five-toilet washroom trailer and an outdoor safe respite area. Over 35 peers are employed to maintain the space, offer peer support, and provide overdose prevention or reversal support every day and night. WISH’s washroom trailer is one of three trailers funded by the City which provides safe sanitation and support to members of the community in the Downtown Eastside and on Kingsway.
“COVID-19 and the ongoing overdose crisis are impacting those most marginalized in our city and the new shelter will offer a space for women who might not otherwise have a place to go,” said Sandra Singh, General Manager, Arts, Culture and Community Services. “This shelter will provide vital services that we take for granted every day – somewhere safe to sleep, a shower, laundry facilities and hot meals.”
The City is providing the space at 340 Alexander Street for a nominal lease to WISH.
Find out more about WISH Drop-In Centre HERE.