With the dangers inherent in the sex trade, a trio of downtown Toronto organizations have come together to help make the streets safer.
The Safer Stroll Project came about through collaboration between the Bad Date Coalition, Regent Park Community Health Centre and Street Health Community Nursing Foundation. Over the past three years, the group has helped 25 sex workers learn about safety and move toward personal improvement whether they choose to continue working the streets or not.
Safer Stroll provides educational workshops, referrals to community supports and more and has seen some graduates enter college or find work at local community agencies. It offers information on subjects ranging from training to help sex workers avoid contracting diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C to basic safety tips to ensure they’re not assaulted while working.
The project’s success was touted at a March 9 screening of the Safer Stroll Project documentary, created by Toronto filmmaker Hugh Gibson.
One-time sex worker and Safer Stroll graduate Maureen Tobin spoke of the impact the program had on her life.
“I went from drug abuse, prostitution and homelessness to having a home and getting employed with Street Health and now I have my child back,” she said. “I met a lot of totally different people and it opened up my eyes.”
Fellow Safer Stroll graduate Brandi Nashkewa addressed a crowd gathered for the screening, after which she left for a job interview. The joy in her face as she announced where she was headed showed the power the Safer Stroll Project gives graduates.
Nashkewa said she used to be high on drugs “from the time I got up (in the morning) until I couldn’t stand up anymore to get high.”
She said the program essentially saved her life, given the path she was travelling.
“It’s beyond me how I’m still sitting here today,” she said.
Safer Stroll graduate Tiesha Anderson pointed out the Safer Stroll Project can serve as a springboard for change for sex workers looking to make changes in their lives. She noted the program shows participants there are options out there for those looking for help in overcoming the challenges and dangers they face.
“I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “I don’t walk with fear. I don’t feel like someone’s going to hurt me, like someone’s going to attack me.”
Amy Muli of the Bad Date Coalition pointed out the program is not designed to get women to quit sex work. Instead, it aims to empower them and allow them to make their own choices.
“It’s about holding your head up high and saying, ‘yeah, I’m a sex worker and I have housing and safety,'” she said, adding with stronger supports, sex workers will be in a position to decide for themselves whether or not to remain in the industry.
She added there is still work to be done bridging the gap between sex workers and police to ensure the former feel the latter are looking out for them. In a show of good faith, Det. Mark Benallick of the Toronto Police Special Victims Unit attended the meeting.
As the barriers between police and sex workers are broken down, however, the Safer Stroll Project promises to help ensure women working on the street have more resources at their disposal in keeping safe.