Beware how you remove hope from another human being. A slight paraphrase of Oliver Wendell Holmes, former U.S. Supreme Court justice. A man whose legal scholarship was matched only by his respect for democracy.
Last week, democracy took a hit. A handful of unelected folks including Janice Abbott, CEO of the Atira social housing empire, announced a major policy change involving prostitution, a daily tragedy on Vancouver streets. It’s basically legal. And you’re paying for it.
Abbott’s Atira, home to taxpayer millions, and it’s junior partner RainCity Housing, have, for an unspecified period of time, operated de facto brothels in the Downtown Eastside. According to a press release, Abbott and friends authored a “study” involving “39 women” in two unnamed public housing projects, which offer “supportive guest policies” and “condoms” where “clients sign-in at the front desk.” Apparently, the study, five pages of scientific brilliance, bore fruit and “these models have now been extended to reach more sex workers across a number of housing programs in Vancouver.”
So there you have it. The debate is over. Our legislators can move on. Notify the Supreme Court, we don’t need them anymore. A handful of housing barons/activists/ideologues have declared prostitution legal in the Downtown Eastside—or at least within Abbott’s realm, which includes (at last count) 13 government-owned hotels.
Abbott and her study co-authors from the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS refused to answer questions for this column. Such as: Why are the 39 women involved in prostitution? Is there an age limit? Do they have pimps? Would they rather receive help out of prostitution? Or women-only detox programs? Or police action against pimps and johns? Did you ask the women these questions? And if so, may we see the answers?
Not likely. Because this “study” is not about education but rather a tool in an ongoing campaign by so-called harm reduction advocates to legalize prostitution. It notes the “landmark decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal” that struck down Canadian prostitution laws.
Of course, that decision does not apply outside Ontario and the Criminal Code forbids the “owning, managing, leasing, occupying” of a brothel.
Prostitution is inherently violent and degrading, dominated by criminals, pimps and drug dealers. In the Downtown Eastside, hotels are prostitution hotspots. To offer hotels as safe havens for women, no matter what “supportive guest policies” you install, is like offering sauna shelters to burn victims.
“If a date goes bad you’re going to get hurt some way,” says Crystal Mane, at the corner of East Hastings and Dunlevy. “Maybe not your body or your face, but some way.”
Mane has walked East Hastings on and off since 1997. Her pale skin and steel blue eyes glow between dyed-red hair and red lipstick, which struggles to conceal sores around her mouth. She doesn’t live in an Atira building, and she didn’t hear last week’s announcement, but she isn’t surprised. “I’ve never had much of a problem at the front desk anywhere. If you don’t live there you can pay them or give an excuse, whatever.”
Mane’s not ready to kick her crack habit so “there’s no sense looking for detox.” But if she was in charge, that’s where she put public money.
“You can’t get well down here… I have friends who have nice places, like bachelor apartments, and they still work the streets. I had a friend die last month—she overdosed. Pretty sad.”
After talking to women like Mane, you wonder what planet women like Amelia Ridgway, manager of RainCity Housing, live on.
Last week—via press release, of course—Ridgway talked about women and their “right to govern their own bodies”—a slogan copied and pasted from the legalization handbook.
Well, Ms. Ridgway, women also own the right to live outside an evil industry run by men for men. With drug debts. Head shavings. Disease-ridden scumbags. Crystal Mane’s perspective on “choice” and “liberation” likely varies wildly from whatever textbook you’ve ingested.
Fortunately, there are solutions, namely the Nordic model, a set of policies targeting the demand side of prostitution (pimps and johns). When adopted in 1999, the Nordic model virtually emptied Sweden of prostitution. Countries such as Norway and Iceland adopted similar methods with similar success. Of course, this approach requires investment in law enforcement, exit services and drug rehabilitation programs. Yet in Vancouver, we dump millions into a dysfunctional social housing/harm reduction scheme, which drives the poverty cycle.
Take Atira, for instance. Under Abbott’s control, during a four-year period beginning in 2007, Atira received at least $21,400,000 from B.C. Housing. (Incidentally, in June 2010 Abbott married Shayne Ramsay, CEO of B.C. Housing, which doles out money to Atira and other social housing firms.)
Last September, thanks to a $1,443,600 mortgage secured by B.C. Housing, Atira opened a social housing project exclusively for teenage girls (aged 16 to 19) in the old International Inn at 120 Jackson, drawing outrage from aboriginal and women’s’ groups.
Abbott, and others like her in the Downtown Eastside, exploit a growing disconnect between our democratic process and policies on the ground.
No one voted, or more importantly, had the opportunity to vote, for brothels. Or free crack pipes. Or prescription heroin. These policies exist in a nebula, free from democratic accountability. Oversight is left to the organizers, usually ideological bedfellows. Success and failure determined by, in the case of brothels, Janice Abbott, a housing provider.
When asked about last week’s brothel announcement, Rich Coleman, minister responsible for housing, seemed blindsided although he’s “not prepared to throw anybody under the bus on this one."
Beware how you remove hope from another human being. It can be done quickly with lethal results. Prostituted women often own tragic histories of abuse and neglect. They’re vulnerable to quick fixes with little hope of long-term gain. Is there anything more hopeless, more disappointing to the soul, than “supportive guest policies” ordered like room service in a government hotel? That solution could last forever.