By the time most teenagers were hitting the books in college, a drug-addicted Jo-Anne was selling sex on Nanaimo’s downtown streets.
“I had an awesome upbringing. No one beat me up. My parents didn’t drink. We were the Brady Bunch,” she said. “I just started partying with my friends and dabbling with cocaine and booze … pretty soon I couldn’t get up in the morning without it.”
Jo-Anne turned to crack and speed when cocaine no longer gave her a good high. She lost custody of her children and by 19, was living on the streets and selling sex to feed her habit.
She felt invisible to anyone other than the prostitutes and homeless that had become her family. There were times she was on the ground suffering from what felt like an overdose and people would step over her body like she didn’t exist, she said, eyes flashing.
“I was a nobody. A drug addict,” Jo-Anne said. “I felt like no one cared.”
It wasn’t until her now husband stopped and told her she had the potential to be something else that she found the courage to get treatment. He was a stranger.
He wasn’t a john and didn’t “know me from a hole in the wall,” but he cared and believed in her, she said. It was all she needed.
At 34 years old and six years sober, the Nanaimo health-care worker and mother is returning to the streets – this time to show sex trade workers they matter to the community. She hopes she can help change lives.
olunteer with the Community Action Team, a new group that aims to make the streets safer for sex trade workers.
The initiative, a joint effort by the Nanaimo Women’s Resources Centre and Haven Society, will take sex trade workers out of isolation and give them a place to check in, report violence and spread the word about bad dates without judgment or stigmatization.
A ‘bad date list’ will be circulated to prostitutes through social service agencies and police with the licence plates and descriptions of violent johns.
Advocates and police say the effort is a critical step toward better protecting one of Nanaimo’s most vulnerable populations. If sex trade workers are empowered to share information through their peers, police will be able to learn about predators quicker.
“In the Robert Pickton case, a lot of what happened was because sex trade workers were not being listened to,” said Lesley Clarke, executive director of the Nanaimo Women’s Resources Centre. “People in the street life need a voice and when they use it, there has to be people willing to listen.”
According to the Nanaimo RCMP a small percentage of the city’s sex trade is done on the streets, where prostitutes are most at risk. RCMP Cpl. Dave LaBerge says while the sex trade population is constantly changing and hard to track, he recalls seeing close to 120 prostitutes selling their bodies a decade ago compared to about 40 to 60 today. Much of the sex trade has gone digital, with sex sold on sites like Craigslist and Backpage. Those who are desperate and drug-addicted head to the streets, where they are vulnerable to daily incidents of assault, confinement and robbery.
Since 2011, the Nanaimo RCMP has been looking at ways to make street life safer for sex trade workers by giving them more “options” to communicate with authorities. Crimes and predators can go unreported because prostitutes are not always comfortable approaching the police or becoming a witness, LaBerge said.
A new cohort group has been established to discuss street issues and communicate about clients, which LaBerge says could lead to early reporting of missing sex trade workers. There will also be a new third-party reporting system so prostitutes can report violence to volunteers at CAT, women’s groups and health centres instead of the detachment.
They will get to choose whether the incident is investigated by the police or used only to inform other women in the sex industry.
“All people in our community have the same self worth … and we have to keep them safe,” LaBerge said. “God forbid, your sister or mother developed a mental illness or was overcome with addiction or fleeing violence and found themselves in the unfortunate circumstance where they are … resorting to sex trade work for their very survival.”
With programs like CAT, Nanaimo is well ahead of other jurisdictions in protecting the vulnerable street population, he added.
CAT will be open twice a week for sex trade workers of any gender to drop in and report violence or discuss safety concerns with people formerly in the sex industry. Clarke says sex trade workers will not have to explain the language they use or their lifestyle to volunteers, just their needs.
The program could expand in the future to include more services needed by clients. It is currently running on a $7,000 budget from the City of Nanaimo.
Ultimately Clarke said she hopes CAT helps increase the safety of sex trade workers and brings greater attention to the sex industry issues in Nanaimo.
“[This is] about sending a message that the community cares,” Clarke said. “We are not trying to keep them away from what they are doing, but keep them safe and help communicate what is going on.”
CAT will hold an open house for the public Wednesday to Friday (Aug. 7-9) at its Prideaux Street office from 3:30 to 5 p.m. to share more information about the program.
– Jo-Anne’s name has been changed to protect her identity.