POLITICS

24-7 drop-in centre for sex workers a 'no-brainer': Pickton inquiry commissioner

05/01/2012 02:59 EDT | Updated 07/01/2012 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - A 24-hour drop-in centre for impoverished sex workers of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is a "no-brainer," says the commissioner overseeing the public inquiry into the Robert Pickton case.

It's one of the first times Commissioner Wally Oppal has hinted at something he'll likely recommend in his final report.

The inquiry opened a series of policy forums Tuesday to invite recommendations for protecting vulnerable women, and one suggestion that came up repeatedly was an all-day, all-night resource centre to help sex workers stay safe.

Currently, no such service exists in the Downtown Eastside, the blighted neighbourhood from which Pickton lured his victims. The WISH drop-in centre is the main resource for sex workers in the neighbourhood, but it closes its doors at 11 p.m. and says it doesn't have the money to be open longer.

"We've heard from a number of different people there should be some kind of a drop-in centre, a resource centre," Oppal told a packed room in a downtown Vancouver library.

"To me at this stage, it seems like a no-brainer."

Oppal asked the participants in the session, which included current and former sex workers, community advocates and police officers, what such a centre should look like.

He was told it should be modelled after WISH, which provides hot meals, showers, nursing care, referrals to other programs and safety notices, and several people recommended that WISH simply be given the funding and resources to expand to a round-the-clock operation.

"If that (a 24-hour drop-in centre) is made, it's got to be given to an organization that has a proven track record," said Dave Dickson, who was a well-known beat cop in the Downtown Eastside and later served as a sex-work liaison officer for the Vancouver police.

"They (WISH) have got a great track record, and this should have happened years ago. Somebody should have stepped up to the plate and given them the money in light of all the missing and murdered women."

WISH isn't participating in the inquiry. It was among more than a dozen groups granted participant status at the inquiry but was denied provincial government funding.

Kate Gibson, WISH's executive director, said she'd love to run the drop-in centre all night, but she's skeptical any level of government would come through with the money even if Oppal recommended it.

Currently, the centre operates from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. every night of the week with a budget of about $320,000 a year, but less than half of that comes from government sources, said Gibson.

WISH receives about $80,000 a year from the City of Vancouver and another $60,000 from the provincial government. The rest of the drop-in centre's budget comes from other community groups, religious organizations and individual donors, said Gibson.

In 2007, WISH estimated it would cost more than $800,000 to open 24 hours a day. Gibson said the group doesn't have an updated estimate, but she said those numbers are likely still accurate.

"It may be a no-brainer when it's being discussed, then when it comes to priorities for the government, it's not a no-brainer because it didn't happen yet," Gibson said in an interview.

"We would love to do more, but at this point, we struggle to get our programs funded. People are quite willing to help us support the drop-in, but every time you have to go hat in hand."

In addition to the drop-in centre funding, the city provided the space for WISH's current location, which opened in 2008, and both the city and the province also provide money for a mobile van that brings services to sex workers while they're on the streets.

Tuesday's policy forum heard concerns that governments simply aren't funding services that could protect sex workers and help them get off the streets.

Participants noted some programs have either closed, are considering closing, or have been forced to scale back their work because their funding has been cut or is uncertain. For example, PEERS, a non-profit group that offered help to women who wanted to leave the sex trade, announced last fall that it would have to close its doors after the provincial government cancelled its funding.

Oppal appeared to share some of those concerns. One of his staff members told participants to keep in mind that government funding is scare and they should concentrate on where best to use those limited resources.

"That's sort of the impediment to many programs that people recommend," said Oppal.

The inquiry has spent the past months hearing testimony about Vancouver police and RCMP investigations that failed to catch Pickton in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The policy forums, scheduled for the next two weeks, switch the focus from police investigations to recommendations that could prevent a similar tragedy in the future. Topics include sex worker safety, communication between the police and the public, and police accountability.

Public hearings wrap up at the end of this month. Oppal's final report is due June 30.

Pickton was arrested in 2002 and later convicted of six counts of second-degree murder.

The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm, though he once told an undercover police officer that he killed 49.