This weekâ€™s column for The StarPhoenix.
Like anything designed by bureaucrats, it’s unwieldy, crashes a lot and doesn’t really do anything that’s very useful. It publishes inaccurate reports that need to be manually checked, thus eliminating the efficiency that should come from its use.
Despite my dislike of the software, I realized that it could be useful in helping us understand and track the contributing factors to homelessness. To implement these ideas, I needed input from others on what we wanted to track and the best ways to do that.
During this discussion on contributing factors, the issue of sex trade workers arose. Staff pulled 20 random files of self-identified sex trade workers. A glance at the files showed 19 of the 20 had mental health problems. All 20 spoke of substance abuse issues. Many spoke of significant ongoing health issues such as HIV/hepatitis C or recent miscarriages.
Within hours of coming off the street and getting some food and sleep, the women were back on the street, looking for their next fix or hooking up with their pimp before they were missed. I see in the women who come in for meals the toll the sex trade takes on them.
One woman who has been coming in for years has started to lose a lot of weight, around 60 pounds on a frame that to begin with didn’t have any to lose. She is skin and bones, except for the parts of her body where she’s injecting the drugs.
When she comes in for meals, her limbs are often flailing uncontrollably. She seems to struggle with her body control as she gets some food before heading back out to work at a nearby restaurant parking lot.
The other day I watched her for more than an hour as she tried to score drugs, sex and even coffee in a parking lot.
Panhandling, prostituting and drug dealing – she’s doing whatever it takes to get through the day and the next bit of drugs. Eventually it is off to the Salvation Army or the Friendship Inn for a meal, and then it’s back to what she needs to do to survive.
How does one get to this point?
Last year, I sat in on the Salvation Army’s john school. It’s an alternative sentencing program for men who have been charged with soliciting. Staff occasionally sit in to better understand what life is like for the women on the streets and one of the first things I learned was that they weren’t women but girls when they started.
Many lost their virginity to johns when they were as young as age 11. I had a conversation with a researcher last week who spoke of a parent saying, "I put my girls on the streets because that is what my parents did to me."
An April 2002 StarPhoenix front page story spoke of girls recruiting girls into the sex trade, with pimps as young as 12.
I keep hoping we’ve made progress, but a recent conversation with City Centre Church’s Chris Randall confirmed that it’s still happening; they are seeing preteen girls come in from the streets.
Last year I gave countless tours to Catholic school division elementary school teachers and heard the same stories from them: Parents who don’t care, siblings using younger children to advance their own standing in gangs, or families living off the money their daughters bring home.
If that is how it starts for a street worker, how does it stop? This question has haunted me over the past few weeks.
Any extra money will go to drugs. Food will go to her pimp. If she is charged and incarcerated, what’s even 90 days in a provincial jail going to do? It’s not enough time to get the mental health care she needs or time enough to deal with the addictions. When she is back out, where does she turn?
Statistically, the chances are it will stop with her death. If it’s not the drugs that kill her, it will be a trick gone bad, a sexually transmitted infection or a beating from her pimp that goes too far. These women are treated as disposable human beings and, when their lives end, it is often attributed to "a high-risk lifestyle."
The truth is a lot sadder and complicated, but that is of little comfort to those trapped in it.
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