Updated: Fri, 30 Jul 2010 08:00:22 GMT | By James Keller and Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press, thecanadianpress.com

Downtown Eastside still struggling

Downtown Eastside still struggling

FILE - A man sits along the sidewalk on East Hastings Street in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Monday, Sept. 21, 2009. When the police descended on Robert Pickton's farm more than eight years ago and uncovered the remains of 26 sex-workers, the public's attention soon found its way back to the pig farmer's hunting grounds: Vancouver's blighted Downtown Eastside. The subsequent police investigation and Pickton's sensational murder trial saw the neighbourhood's struggles with drug-addiction, homelessness and prostitution laid bare, and the disturbing picture that emerged led police and politicians to promise they'd do things differently. But nearly a decade since the legal saga began, support groups that work with sex-workers in the Downtown Eastside say the attention has faded and the violence and poverty facing the community's most vulnerable residents remains. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

VANCOUVER - When police descended on Robert Pickton's farm in 2002 and began to unearth the remains of missing sex-trade workers, public attention was focused on the gritty streets many of the women had walked — the streets of Vancouver's blighted Downtown Eastside.

The investigation and Pickton's subsequent murder trial laid bare the neighbourhood plagued with drug-addiction, homelessness and prostitution. Police and politicians promised they'd do things differently.

But nearly a decade since the legal saga began, sex worker support groups say the attention has faded while violence and poverty remain.

"I think the public has been left with the impression that because he's locked up, everything's fine now," says Kerry Porth, the executive director of P.A.C.E., a group that provides outreach to prostitutes.

"We see between six and eight 'bad date' reports per week — that can range anywhere from 'client refused to pay' to 'client attempted to strangle and murder the sex worker' — and women continue to disappear."

While many working in the Downtown Eastside were wary of the intense international spotlight in the beginning, some now lament that the neighbourhood has returned to the shadows.

Porth says her group saw how quickly the issue vanished from the public conscience immediately: after the trial, public donations dropped by 70 per cent.

Now, almost 12 years after Vancouver police set up a special team to review reports of women missing from the neighbourhood and eight years since Pickton was charged with the first of what would be 26 murder counts, Porth and others say meaningful help has been slow to come.

"The hard part about this is none of the changes are going to be overnight," says Sue Davis, a 42-year-old Vancouver sex worker.

"We have to understand that it's been 100 years to get as bad as it is, the degrading of our role in the community, the (dropping) respect that people have for us to this point of being disposable.

"It's going to take time to change attitudes across the board. That's what we need, system-wide reform."

According to the B.C. Housing Ministry, the province subsidizes more than 7,000 units of social housing in the Downtown Eastside, double the number that existed in 2001. Some 180 units are currently under construction.

Another 1,200 single-room occupancy hotels, purchased by the province, are located in the neighbourhood. Emergency shelters there receive $10 million in funding annually. And in 2009, permanent housing was found for 1,220 homeless people.

Davis, who's been in the sex trade for 24 years, says the trial did lead to some progress.

She points to a 24-hour supported housing facility in a ramshackle apartment building, where sex-trade workers can live while trying to beat addiction.

But the greatest step forward, in her mind, has been made by the Vancouver Police Department.

More officers have been added to the missing persons unit and new recruits are trained to treat sex-trade workers with dignity in sessions led by sex workers including Davis.

And there is now the Sex Industry Worker Safety Action Group, a partnership between the force, prostitutes and community organizations.

Many workers know by name the sex industry liaison officer, a female cop who works directly with the women when something nasty happens.

"We're seeing a shift towards protection of workers, rather than punishment of workers as criminals, which is really huge," Davis says.

Nevertheless, advocates agree the list of things the community still needs is long: more mental-health and addiction services, women-only detox facilities, long-term recovery programs for prostitutes and more shelter space.

And they say there's still not enough social housing to keep women in poverty from being forced into prostitution in the first place.

"None of that has happened. If people think that a ton of money was poured into this neighbourhood to help sex workers, I'm here to tell you that that's absolutely not the case," says Porth.

The sex trade is still a highly charged issue that politicians don't want to touch, she says.

"We still live in an incredibly conservative country."

Most disturbing, says Kate Gibson, executive director of a drop-in centre for sex workers known as WISH, is that the violence continues — and by some accounts it has actually worsened in recent years.

"I think the police have gone a long way to make changes so they can act more quickly, but the level of violence that women experience, it definitely isn't any better," says Gibson.

"I don't know if it's the numbers (of violent incidents). It's the degree of violence that's involved."

The disappearance of so many women from the Downtown Eastside has left a scar that will take a long time to heal, says former prostitute Trisha Baptie.

"No matter what happens, nothing can undo what was done. I don't think there's any way you can deal with this and have everyone be OK with the outcome," she says.

"Whatever the outcome is, it's still not the end. I don't think we'll reach an end any time soon."

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