From a third-floor office on Vancouver's West Pender Street, CeeJai Julian pointed to a recess at the rear of a building across the back alley where she used to sleep when she was still selling sex to survive. Someone had painted the face of a woman on the wall, and each time Julian looks down from her desk at the Prostitutes Empowerment Education Resource Society, she is reminded of some names: Andrea Joesbury, Georgina Papin, Sereena Abotsway, Kerry Koski, Sarah de Vries, and Inga Monique Hall.
"I knew these girls," Julian told the Georgia Straight . "We celebrated Christmas and New Year's, birthdays. We laugh, we cry, we get high together. We worked the corner together, so I knew a lot of them."
They were Julian's friends, and these women were among the 26 sex-trade workers whose deaths Crown prosecutors have alleged were the handiwork of Port Coquitlam pig farmer Robert William Pickton. As the Straight went to press, the jury were continuing their deliberations in the Pickton trial on six counts of first-degree murder.
Julian, a Carrier Sekani Native woman, sold sex for 22 years. She stopped five years ago and is now mentoring prostitutes who want out. She teaches them how to use computers, prepare a résumé, and learn other skills so they can find employment.
Last June, according to Julian, the federal government cut off funding for the PEERS program. "It's gonna cause people to die," she warned. "They can possibly get murdered as a result of their work or overdose if they're drug-addicted. It's affecting a lot of people."
From a full-time staff of 11, PEERS now has only two employees, with its remaining funding coming from the provincial government. Julian's coworker, Ty Mistry, told the Straight that under the program affected by the funding cut, sex workers attended workshops for three months and were placed in jobs with their salaries paid by PEERS for a period of three months. That was a good incentive for employers, Mistry explained. Their participants included not only women, but also men and transgendered sex workers.
"They need a lot of support to get out of the sex industry," Mistry said. "People need a place to go."
Another support program for sex workers is also facing funding problems. Through the Mobile Access Project, administered by the WISH Drop-In Centre Society and the Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education Society, a van goes out seven nights a week to provide services to Downtown Eastside women working on the street.
The MAP van is staffed by women who hand out coffee, water, and other supplies like condoms and clean needles. They also provide information about shelters and emergency services.
In November, WISH executive director Kate Gibson told the Straight that provincial funding for MAP will run out in the next few months, and it isn't clear yet whether or not the project will continue.
The PACE Society, according to office manager Kerry Porth, "nearly disappeared this summer because of a gap in our funding cycle".
"The circumstances on the ground for sex workers on the streets haven't changed," Porth told the Straight . "Sex workers still continue to be viewed with a lot of stigma. They're considered transients, which they're not. People just don't care about them. Society has placed them outside of their sphere of concern for many years and, unfortunately, nothing has changed."
The Downtown Eastside, where at least 60 women have disappeared from 1978 to 2001, is part of the federal riding of NDP MP Libby Davies. "What I'm very concerned about is once the Pickton trial is concluded and there's a verdict, people will forget about this issue, and the terrible danger and risks that sex-trade workers face will just continue unaddressed," Davies told the Straight .
At the PEERS office, there's a poster calling for information on the whereabouts of Naomi Williams, an 18-year-old Native woman. She was last seen October 15, 2007.
There are also a bunch of flyers dated December 3, 2007. These came from the family of missing woman Kim Yake. "Your family misses you and would like you to contact them!" the flyer reads. Yake hasn't been heard from for 15 years, according to Julian.