British Columbia

Vancouver sex workers hold forum to discuss housing challenges

They say the soaring price of housing has left them facing life-or-death situations.

Low vacancy, new legislation pose challenge to those in the industry

The Vancouver Public Library hosts a public event detailing the impacts of the housing crisis on sex workers in Vancouver on October 11, 2016. (Kamil Karamali/CBC)

Vancouver's housing crisis has left a lot of people searching for answers, and scrambling to find homes.

But sex workers say the soaring price of housing has left them facing life-or-death situations.

"They're treated like lower class citizens and they're treated to horrible conditions that are difficult to escape from. Unfortunately the housing situation exacerbates that," said Olivia, one of the many sex workers who spoke at Experiencing Homelessness: Sex Workstorytellers, an event at the Vancouver Public Library on Tuesday night. 

She says the danger has always been there for street-level workers, but the soaring cost of housing has left more and more of them without a home and a safe place to work from.

"They can't become not homeless because there's so many things working against them," she says.

"Now that housing is the buzzword on everybody's lips, we get to talk about the problems more, but those problems have always existed." 

Legislation introduced in 2014, targeting buyers rather than those who sell the service, compounds the problem, according to Andrea Krusi, a researcher for the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

"Clients are less likely to go [to sex workers' homes] because they are considered easy targets for police at those locations," she says, because many SROs require guests to show their ID.

Krusi says more landlords now are discriminating against high-end or indoor sex workers — and with a vacancy rate that stands at 0.6 per cent in Vancouver, they can be choosy.

"Landlords in this housing crisis have a lot of potential tennants to chose from," she says. 

Former sex worker Babs Kelly says it comes down to the stigma around the profession.

"There's still judgement around that, and we still find that from landlords, from co-ops, neighbours."

Studies into the impact of housing on sex workers has resulted in a lot of personal stories, but there are very few numbers on how many more sex workers are left without a roof over their heads.

Researchers say that's nearly impossible to gauge, with a demographic that prefers to hide in the shadows.

"The criminalization really drives sex workers underground, and sex workers remain hidden, and it's difficult to assess how the housing crisis, in hard numbers, negatively affect this population," said Krusi.