Don Meikle, community worker

Don Meikle is involved in a program that helps prostitutes get out of the street life and turn their lives around. (CBC)

A prostitute rescue program that has turned lives around is now on hold because police are no longer laying prostitution charges in Saskatoon, says a man who helped run it.

Since 2001, Operation Help has staged interventions in the lives of 200 women and girls who were working the streets.

The program is a partnership between police and various social service agencies, including EGADZ, a street outreach program run by Don Meikle.

But it's now on hold because police in Saskatchewan have been told by Crown prosecutors to not lay prostitution charges, in light of the Supreme Court declaring in December that Canada's prostitution laws unconstitutional late last year.

Program created 'crisis' moments that led to change

Meikle told CBC's iTeam a few times a year police would run stings aimed at prostitutes, and once an arrest was made "we would be sitting at the police station waiting for them."

Bawdy of Evidence skpix

Meikle said the woman would be brought into a room where she was met by a group of people who could help her with addictions, housing, emergency income, child care or anything else she might need.

"It was quite in-depth and it was all about the client. It was all about figuring out why and how and what we could do to support positive change."

The intervention style meeting was purposely dramatic, and potentially life altering.

"Over the years that program has saved lives. We were able to do interventions at times when people were out there for the first time or second time or just started to get involved."

Meikle explained "sometimes it's easier when that crisis is there or when that sense of urgency is there. Sometimes it's easier to make changes. And we've lost that."

Saskatoon police no longer charging prostitutes: Meikle

Meikle says not long after the Supreme Court ruled Canada's prostitution laws were unconstitutional, he had a conversation with police.

"The police told us that they will not be doing anymore stings on the sex trade workers. They were still going to focus on the johns. And that the Crown will not proceed with any [communicating for the purpose of prostitution] Criminal Code charges".

According to Meikle, that move means his organization has lost the opportunity to intervene in the lives of these women at a crisis point.

"It's been very disappointing," Meikle said. "It's taken away that crisis that quite often created change."

Prostitute rescue programs needed across Canada: expert

Operation Help has received praise for its innovative and effective approach to helping women exit the sex trade.

Recently a delegation from the Canadian Women's Foundation visited Saskatoon as part of a 10-city tour of Canada, during which they focused on how governments and communities are handling issues related to sex trafficking.

Diane Redsky, who's leading the initiative, said the program was doing "phenomenal work" and is "the only one that I'm aware of across Canada" doing this sort of intervention.

"We heard from survivors that we met as part of the Saskatchewan site visit that that was the one thing that really made the difference for them in rebuilding their lives." Redsky explained. "And for some women it is a rescue and for some women it is an escape."

Benjamin Perrin, a UBC professor who's an expert in Canada's prostitution industry pointed out research shows that one of the best ways to combat prostitution is comprehensive programs aimed at helping women exit the sex trade.

Benjamin Perrin

Benjamin Perrin, a University of B.C. professor who has studied sex trafficking (CBC)

He argued it's something this country doesn't do very well.

"There are vastly more massage parlour beds than there are detox beds. That should tell us something about where the resources and the money are going."

He said for too long prostitutes have been targeted by prosecution rather than exit strategies. Statistics show 92 per cent of people jailed for prostitution are women, rather than pimps and johns.

Perrin says he would like to see a national exit strategy for prostitutes.

Change of direction for outreach workers

Meikle says workers from EGADZ are now taking a different approach.

They're reconnecting with the 200 women who've gone through the Operation Help program in the past in order to "see how they're doing, see where they're at and then trying to provide support and assistance."

Meikle hopes that Operation Help can be resuscitated once Canada has new prostitution laws later this year.