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Trading sex for basic needs; outreach workers try to help Penticton’s most vulnerable

Click to play video: 'Penticton outreach workers say growing number of people trading sex for basic needs'
Penticton outreach workers say growing number of people trading sex for basic needs
Penticton outreach workers say growing number of people trading sex for basic needs – Dec 8, 2016

Imagine being so desperate for food or a place to stay that you’d be willing to trade sex for essentials like those. Homeless Outreach worker Gwen Wain said there are dozens of people in Penticton who face that reality.

“What we have is a level of exploitation that I think people are really just starting to identify and recognize here,” Wain said.

“Survival sex is anything from sex for a place to live, sex for rides, sex for showers, a place to do laundry.”

Wain said a survey she helped conduct this past summer showed at least 60 people, mainly women and youth, either were making ends meet by trading sex or would be willing to.

“There were over 300 people that were homeless in Penticton this summer and the reality is people are this desperate,” Wain said.

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She said this is different from prostitution and that some of those who are getting by this way are what she calls the “working poor”.

“You have single parent families, if she or he is behind in the rent, it happens quite quickly. People are ending up homeless who would never even have considered that being homeless would be a possibility in their lives before,” Wain said.

“When you have this many people on the streets, there’s violence and there’s a competition for resources.”

Through a mobile outreach van, the South Okanagan Women in Need Society (SOWINS) worked to help many of those engaging in what the society calls “survival sex work”.

Funding for the van ran out by the end of the summer, but this week SOWINS learned it’s getting a federal grant of about $2.5 million over five years.

It means the van, which is used to hand out harm reduction kids, water bottles, toiletries, condoms and other basic needs to those who need it, could be back in operation by the spring.

“It will [also] mean that we are going to rent an apartment that is secure for these individuals to get away from those who are exploiting them,” SOWINS executive director Debbie Scarborough said.

Wain said Penticton’s housing shortage is one reason why this problem seems to only be getting worse.

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