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Canada's New Judgement-Free Shelter For Sex-Workers Will Change Lives In The DTES

"This is a population that is among the most marginalized of the most marginalized."

There's a new addition coming to the Downtown Eastside that will radically change lives — and Vancouver's sex-worker shelter is a completely judgement-free safe space.

Narcity spoke with Mebrat Beyene, the Executive Director for the WISH Drop-In Centre Society, to find out more about how it works.

“Sex work is work, so it's not a rescue approach,” she said. “It’s not one where there's an expectation that you'll leave the sex trade.”

Instead, they have a harm-reduction based approach.

“We speak not to judge or penalize women for the choices that they've made,” she said.

Support for the project has been pouring in from the city, the community, and from local businesses who have already reached out and asked how they could help, according to Beyene.

Right now, they have a drop-in centre where people can access resources.

In four to six weeks, they will open a 23-bed shelter that's open 24/7.

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Why is this the first shelter of its kind?

There have been services available for sex-workers in the city for a while. WISH opened its drop-in centre 12 years ago.

But this is the first shelter of its kind that's open 24/7.

"It's just taken a while for people to really see the need," said Beyene. 

"The system is being stretched so thin and, therefore, sex workers are not often being prioritized in the mix."

Why do we need a shelter just for sex-workers?

"There's always been and continues to be a huge stigma against sex work," said Beyene, "it makes it really difficult sometimes for people to support something that is explicitly for sex workers."

This space is tailored to their needs that might not be met at an ordinary shelter — they give safety by respecting anonymity and are respectful of what these women are facing and experiencing.

While they serve women, including cis and trans women, they do serve gender diverse folks as well.  

The city has no 24/7 shelter for male sex workers, although WISH works with a partner organization in the West End who support them through a drop-in centre.

Who can stay here?

To access the shelter or any other WISH service, sex-workers can either show up or reach out. 

Email them, connect with them on their social, or just come by to chat. 

"The intake process is just a series of really low barrier conversations with the staff," said Beyene.

"This will add stability to women's lives, it means that they don't have to make as many unsafe choices."

That way women might not have to stay in an unsafe relationship or trade sex just for a safe place to stay.

And even if someone isn't a fit for the shelter or all 23 beds are full, there are still washing trailers, the drop-in space, and a mobile outreach program for support.