Home Turf – A sex worker speaks out against gentrification

Lulu participating in the hunger strike campaign for social housing
Lulu participating in the hunger strike campaign for social housing

The invasion of high end businesses and expensive condos into the Downtown Eastside has brought pressure against women working in street level sex work. The changes in the neighbourhood threaten  to drive them away from the area that they are most safe and comfortable working. Many street level sex workers choose to work in the DTES because it is an affordable and familiar community. Resources for sex workers are close and accessible. WISH, for example, is a drop in for women who are formerly and currently active in the sex trade. It’s located in the community and provides support, supplies, clothing, food and medical care. Having access to these services is important for the many women who are working independently as sex workers in the DTES.

The Granville Mall used to be a busy area for street sex workers. Today it’s not possible to work that area because of  the highrises and developments that have brought in a new class of people who don’t want to see women working on the street. This change pushed sex workers further east into the DTES. At that time, tensions on the street became really aggressive. The pressure from the people in the highrises, who would tell workers to leave, combined with increased security patrols reduced the space that women were able to work without being harassed.  This also contributed to rising tensions over turf between pimps. The area became unworkable particularly for independent sex workers.

There are other areas in Vancouver that sex workers can avoid too much harassment from private security, police, business and home owners, but they come with drawbacks of their own. Kingsway, for example, where women can potentially make more money, is much much riskier than the DTES. It’s a totally different ballgame. It’s isolated, and there aren’t familiar people around.

In 2013 the Vancouver Police Department drafted sex work enforcement guidelines that prioritized the safety of sex workers. The guidelines stated that the VPD would “treat those in the sex industry with respect and dignity” and that “sex work involving consenting adults is not an enforcement priority for the VPD.” While this approach is welcome, the reality is that sex workers in the DTES are facing harassment. Many workers report that new high end businesses owners and their patrons will stare at women working on the street or even tell them to leave.

This harassment is combined with the increased private security guards, employed by both new businesses and the Strathcona Business Improvement Association. A DTES sex worker stated, “Security guards have driven up on the sidewalk on the corner I’m working on, they have followed me and taken my photograph. They’ve made jokes to me about the Pickton farm. The harassment has been so bad that I’ve had to flag down the police to stop them.”

The invasion of condos and upscale shops in the DTES is basically evicting street-level sex workers from one of the last remaining spaces that is relatively safe for them. The City stated in its 2011 Sex Work Action Plan that it is serious about “Promoting Health and Safety for All Citizens”. If the City values the lives of sex workers it must immediately put a moratorium on development in the DTES to stop the negative impacts of gentrification. It’s important to keep people in the community together and fight the developments that are displacing us, for the health and safety of sex workers and all low-income residents in the DTES.


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