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The Globe and Mail

Van patrol helps Vancouver sex workers access drug treatment: study

Dawn Sam, a homeless prostitute pictured in Vancouver's downtown Eastside February 9, 2009.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A special van driven by former sex-trade workers that does late-night patrols of Vancouver's grim Downtown Eastside seven days a week has become a meaningful route for prostitutes to get drug treatment.

Women who sell sex from the city's shadowy alleys and hidden industrial areas are four times more likely to enter detox programs if they've crossed paths with the van and its staff, according to a study published this week.

"The van's been really effective in making connections with people who need them," Kate Gibson, whose drop-in centre, WISH, operates the vehicle, said of the findings published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

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Called the Mobile Access Project, or the "MAP van," the vehicle roams Vancouver between 10:30 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. providing a safe space for prostitutes to rest, drink water, receive condoms and clean syringes and get referrals to health resources. Staff also take bad-date reports and bring them to police for women wary of directly contacting authorities.

The study, conducted from 2006 to 2008 by the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and the University of British Columbia, sought to evaluate the van's impact on the women it has served for most of the past 6½ years. The project began in 2003 in response to rising awareness of attacks and the murder of street prostitutes after charges were laid against serial killer Robert Pickton.

Of some 242 sex workers who were interviewed, the study found 102 of them used the van during an 18-month period. Of those women, 18 per cent entered drug treatment, compared to only eight per cent of those who never encountered it.

Every month last year, women made about 1,300 contacts with the van, and staff distributed 8,000 condoms and 4,800 clean syringes.

"The peer-based component is certainly an important piece," said Kate Shannon, the study's senior author and an assistant professor in the department of medicine at UBC. "It's sex workers reaching out, creating a very non-judgmental and safe place to access services."

Which is crucial, because many of the women who actually meet the van's staff have been pushed to the extreme margins of society, Dr. Shannon said.

"(The van) can serve as their first and sometimes only point of contact."

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Trust, and the ability of the female staff to relate to those in need based on their experiences, and the patrol's consistency, is the other grease that keeps the program rolling so well, Ms. Gibson added.

Running the van costs $250,000 a year, and is funded by the province and the city. Ms. Gibson said she believes the concept would be welcomed in other cities close to home, like New Westminster and Surrey, and across the country.

"It's that direct contact that means a lot to the women and also, it just alerts people that there is somebody out there watching," she said. "They aren't out there alone."

But despite the positive findings, Dr. Shannon said the patrols shouldn't be looked at as a long-term solution to problems afflicting the sex trade.

Recent favourable court rulings by the B.C. Appeal Court - enabling a group of sex worker advocates to challenge Canada's anti-prostitution laws - and another in Ontario will likely take some time to change street workers' realities, she said.

"While we wait for those policy decisions to make their way through the system, it's important to recognize what steps are working to keep sex workers safe."

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