Nova Scotia

'Here I am, living proof, right?' The program that helps sex workers leave prostitution

Deidrea Desmond says without Stepping Stone, she would "probably be dead or in jail." So many people like her have turned to the Halifax non-profit that it is soon moving to a larger location.

'Bittersweet' as Halifax's Stepping Stone, a support centre for sex workers, moves to bigger space

Deidrea Desmond is a traffic control person. Stepping Stone helped pay for the courses she needed to land her job. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Motorists driving by road construction in Halifax might see Deidrea Desmond, in her orange safety gear and hard hat, holding a stop sign as she controls traffic.

Five years ago, she might have been standing on that same street selling sex.

"You know, I'm not ashamed of who I am," the 36-year-old mother of two said in an interview. "Who we were then, it's who we were then."

The person she is today is grateful for her new employment — she says she loves her job as a traffic control person.

"Obviously if anyone can change — and here I am, living proof, right?"

Condoms are distributed for free at Stepping Stone. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Her decision to make a 180-degree career change has been helped by Stepping Stone, an organization that provides support to sex workers — whether they choose to stay in prostitution or not.

Desmond credits the agency with helping her land her current job through a program that supports people who want to exit the sex trade.

She's not alone. More than 90 people have completed Stepping Stone's various exit programs since 2015, up from a dozen program participants when it started.

Desmond has taken workshops for certifications in applied suicide intervention, first aid and mental health first aid, and working with workplace hazardous materials. The group has also helped pay for defensive driving and traffic control certification courses. 

'Probably be dead or in jail, honestly'

She's also taken courses — she calls them eye-openers — that have helped her emotionally with issues such as anger and trauma.

If it weren't for Stepping Stone she says she would "probably be dead or in jail, honestly." Many of the people she's known from the sex trade, she says, are dead or serving long prison sentences.

As Desmond and others like her turn to Stepping Stone, all that growth has the organization on the move into bigger digs. It's leaving its only home for the past 28 years on Maitland Street.

"It's bittersweet," says Wanda Taylor, the executive director. "Our programs are larger and we need more space. At the same time, we've enjoyed such a great time here, it's hard to leave it."

Stepping Stone employees Carrie MacInnis and Liz Wilson pack up their office. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Stepping Stone was formed after tragedy. In 1985, two sex workers who tried to leave the trade were murdered, and a city advisory group recognized the need for an organization focused on street-based sex work.

Since 1989, a two-bedroom home built in the mid 1800s has served as a safe house for sex workers to drop by for conversation, condoms and food.

Wanda Taylor is the executive director of Stepping Stone. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

The house still offers that. There are as many as 1,000 drop-ins to the home each month.

But with programs rapidly growing in popularity and limited space, Taylor says Stepping Stone is "bursting at the seams" — classes have been capped, or moved to churches and the library.

Six staff members — there are also three outreach workers — double up in cramped offices that are used for storage.

But not for much longer. The group is moving into a three-level townhouse (the group is reluctant to broadly publicize the location for safety concerns). It has four bedrooms to serve as offices, two common areas that will become program and drop-in spaces, and there's storage space for donations.

'Stepping Stone was my stepping stone'

The new space "on the other side of the Commons" means the group is making progress reaching workers. The move, Taylor says, signifies that.

Still, there will be sadness. Desmond says she'll miss the old spot that's served as her second home, a place where she would run to and "scream at the top of my lungs and just be alright." 

It's also been a place where people listened without judgement. They understood, she says, what it's like to be raped and all the other horrors that go along with the lifestyle.

The kitchen doubles as a food bank and program space area at the Maitland Street location. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

With all of the support she's received, Desmond is glad Stepping Stone is moving to help even more people with "life-changing" programs.

"That would be the place where I started to learn things, and started to change me, right. So Stepping Stone was my stepping stone."

Stepping Stone closes its doors on Maitland Street for good on Sept. 29. It reopens Oct. 5 in the new location.