An aboriginal community organization is reaching out to Vanier's prostitutes as part of a city-funded project to find out more about the women who sell sex on the streets of the east-end Ottawa neighbourhood.
Minwaashin Lodge sends a van called STORM (sex trade outreach mobile) out on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights to offer help and support to local prostitutes in whatever form they might need.
"We bring them to a safe spot and provide them with clothes if they need it, juice, a chocolate bar, just somebody to talk to," said Jessica Dumont, one of two outreach workers hired with a $77,000 municipal grant to staff the van until the project ends at the end of March.
The project started 10 weeks ago after complaints from local businesses about the number of street prostitutes in the neighbourhood. In response, the city wanted to find out more about who ends up working the streets in Vanier and what kind of support they need, said Mary Montgomery, director of Oshki Kizis Lodge, an aboriginal women's support centre at Minwaashin Lodge.
Each night that the van is running, Dumont and co-worker Kimberly Mansfield pack it with winter jackets, hats mitts, boots, food such as tangerines, chocolate bars and chips, and toiletries such as tampons and soap before heading out at around 7 p.m. They don't come back until 4 a.m.
The workers hand out bright pink business cards and ask prostitutes to call them on their cell phones if they need anything.
They said the calls start coming in around midnight, and most nights they help about 20 women. Most want a ride to a shelter, but some have been in the midst of very urgent situations.
"We've picked up women fleeing abuse at that very moment," Dumont said.
Last week, a woman called to say she was freezing, so the van brought her a shipping blanket.
85 per cent of prostitutes homeless
Mansfield said there is a high level of homelessness in Ottawa.
"I think the fallout from that typically tends to be people surviving however, by whatever means they can survive and tragically that's not always the healthiest thing," she said, adding that about 85 per cent of the women served by her program are homeless.
Many are also addicted to drugs, but Mansfield said she doesn't think that's why they are homeless. Rather, she said drugs are a coping mechanism that allows them to do what they need to do to survive on the streets.
"Do I do think that any one of the women that we are privileged to work with, would they choose to be there? No, absolutely not."
Montgomery said she hopes the city will keep the program running after next March.