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‘Out of sight’: Surrey sex worker lobbies for protection of vulnerable women

Surrey needs a shelter space for sex workers that is run by them
105 Ave and 132 Street in Surrey on Thursday, May 16, 2024. When Avery Quinn works outside in Whalley, she rarely sees another worker. (Photo: Anna Burns)

There is safety in numbers, especially when it comes to sex work, says Surrey resident Avery Quinn. But this safety is being threatened.

Quinn is a sex worker who requested a pseudonym for anonymity, for fear of retaliation from law enforcement and the city. She told the Now-Leader that she feels she and her colleagues are being pushed out of Whalley, where she works.

Quinn is fortunate enough to have a home to return to after work, but not all her colleagues are that lucky.

For street-entrenched women, as Quinn explained, all aspects of their lives are on the street: living, working and surviving.

Quinn said she often sees police and bylaw officers forcefully removing vulnerable people, including her colleagues, from their temporary homes in the early morning hours.

“It’s very clear that this is a planned effort to push our vulnerable folks out of sight,” Quinn said. “That actually makes us so much less safe because one of the things that helps keep us safe is being able to talk to each other and share information about dangerous people on the street, places to work safely.”

For example, when she sees a sex worker get into a car, she and her colleagues will often note the individual, licence plate and time. The safest thing is for them to gather as a group, but that brings the attention of the police.

“So when we can’t share that information readily, it puts us at great risk of harm,” she added.

When she is working outside in Whalley, she rarely sees another worker. “Which makes me very vulnerable,” she added.

By pushing sex workers out of Whalley and into Newton, Quinn says, “the city is harming … they have blood on their hands.”

She said she has seen an apparent effort from the City of Surrey to “clean up” Whalley and make it the new Yaletown.

“What they actually mean when they say that is, we don’t want to look at people we deem below human,” Quinn said. “That means cleaning up the Surrey strip, just pushing people out of sight.”

In an email, the city’s corporate services department stated, “The City of Surrey is not undertaking any effort of this nature.” The Now-Leader requested an interview to discuss what the city is doing to protect vulnerable women but was sent back the same statement.

The Surrey RCMP gave a similar answer, but they expanded further. Sgt. Tammy Lobb stated that the Surrey RCMP is “not familiar” with an effort to push sex workers out of Whalley.

“I can tell you Surrey RCMP does not perform targeted enforcement against sex workers. When the Protection of Exploited Persons Act came into force in 2014, our approach as law enforcement changed with it,” Lobb said.

“We work closely with our partner agencies who provide direct supports to sex workers. Some of these partners include the Surrey Women’s Centre, the Sexual Health Unit and Integrated Homelessness Action Response Teams (IHART) at Fraser Health,” she added.

While there is not a quick and easy solution, there are several things that the general public can do to help.

Quinn encourages people to put constant pressure on their local government to provide support and safe spaces for sex workers.

“It seems like the only pressure that comes is when one of us dies, like the city’s vulnerable women and girls working group was put together after a woman was brutally murdered,” Quinn said.

The Surrey Vulnerable Women and Girls Working Group was formed in 2013 after a homeless woman, Janice Shore, was beaten to death in Surrey, according to the City of Surrey’s website.

The working group includes seven not-for-profits (Elizabeth Fry Society, Options Community Services, Lookout Emergency Aid Society, Pacific Community Resources Society, Atira Women’s Resource Centre, YWCA and Surrey Women’s Centre), along with the City of Surrey, Surrey RCMP, Fraser Health, BC Housing, the Ministry of Children and Family Development and Public Safety Canada.

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Although the working group has done a lot of work since its inception, there is still more work to be done.

Quinn notes the mayor and the Surrey Board of Trade (SBOT) have been vocal about protecting women when it comes to sex offenders being released into the city, but she wishes they would show the same inclination to speak up about protecting sex workers and other vulnerable women.

“(It’s) just interesting to note the sudden interest of the city and BIA (SBOT) in protecting vulnerable women when they work to eradicate those same vulnerable women in particular from the public eye, and therefore increase risk for them, in the name of public safety,” Quinn said.

Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke has recently been very vocal about three sex offenders who were released into the Surrey community, calling it “unconscionable” that another dangerous sex offender had been released into the community.

The Surrey Board of Trade (SBOT) chimed in (May 21), calling for an “urgent call for review and reform of dangerous sex offender policies to protect community and business interests.”

READ MORE: Surrey RCMP warn of sex offender who ‘poses risk to girls, women, including strangers’

READ MORE: Dangerous sex offender released in Surrey

READ MORE: Third sex offender ‘not welcome’ in Surrey after assaulting 2 women, mayor says

But who counts as the “community,” Quinn asks: What is the city doing to protect sex workers?

There is a lot of stigma and misunderstanding surrounding sex work, Quinn said. “So having a (shelter) space that’s for us, by us, means that there’s a much greater chance of actually getting what we need.”

Vancouver has three spaces specifically designed for sex workers: Wish Drop-in Centre Society, PACE Society and The Corner.

“So to have a similar population, larger geographically, and not have one; honestly, it’s almost embarrassing,” Quinn said.

In 2007, two sex workers in Surrey opened Surrey Girlz, but it later closed due to lack of support from the City and financial support, Quinn said.

As Surrey is a diverse city, with the largest Black and urban Indigenous population in B.C. and over 38 per cent of the population being South Asian, these services must be culturally sensitive.

Quinn told the Now-Leader there are shelters in Surrey “that won’t kick you out for doing it. You have the spaces that at least allow for some rest, an ear to talk to, but there isn’t necessarily a priority of lived experience.”

Quinn also encouraged people to challenge any negative biases they may have towards sex workers and to do some digging to figure out where they come from.

“I know it’s more encouraged to be shoved under the rug,” she said. “It’s not really talked about or shameful to talk about, but that’s what is putting us at risk, that aversion acknowledging we exist.”

“There’s so many different forms of sex work; we are everywhere, we deserve to be safe. We deserve to be part of society like anyone else, and I just encourage folks to think about that.”

-With files from Tom Zillich, Lauren Collins & The Canadian Press

When Avery Quinn works outside in Whalley, she rarely sees another worker. Pictured is 105 Ave and 132 Street in Surrey on Thursday, May 16. (Photo: Anna Burns)

Anna Burns

About the Author: Anna Burns

I cover health care, non-profits and social issues-related topics for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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