The long road to solutions for sex workers, residents, police, businesses and the city as a whole starts at a committee table.
It all started almost two years ago when Heather Jarvis, program co-ordinator for the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP), made a call to the Living in Community group in Vancouver.
After the initial conversations, members of that group flew to St. John’s for meetings to educate advocates on the process and how it can work in St. John’s.
St. John’s is the first city outside of Vancouver to try the model and see what difference it can make toward helping all aspects of the community coexist, including sex workers.
“This is a difficult process. It’s about being able to have those sometimes difficult, open conversations and work through them,” Jarvis said.
“The Living in Community model — 13 years on now — is seeing incredible successes. Partnerships and open dialogues have been created. Different policing approaches have been established, training has been created and given to thousands of people at this point, and more neighbourhoods are picking up these approaches and strategies where you come together.”
After the initial meetings, a formal committee was struck.
With SHOP being one of the stakeholders at the table looking for answers, the lead on the committee was passed over to Happy City, led by former chair Josh Smee, who remains lead on the committee process. Current Happy City chair Rob Nolan is also intimately involved.
Representatives from the municipal government and from the RNC, resident representatives, members of SHOP, local business owners, and sex workers now meet monthly to have open, frank dialogue.
Smee says Happy City is uniquely positioned to lead the process.
“We have no background in working on these issues, but what we do is get people together to talk about how to make their community, their neighbourhood, better,” Smee said.
“That was seen as a good fit. We could be a bit of a neutral arbiter in this process. We’re not advocates for any one group. We’re just trying to get the conversation going.”
The meetings are restricted to those invited, as a measure to ensure people can speak openly without worry of identities of those who may wish to remain anonymous getting out to the public.
In Vancouver, Living in Community is now an organization with full-time employees who work daily to advance the issues found around the table. Nolan says it’s too early to say if anything similar will happen in St. John’s.
“We are closely dealing with Living in Community. They have a 12-year history. It doesn’t mean that such an organization would start in St. John’s, but it’s very possible,” he said.
Smee says while some short-term changes have already taken place, it’s going to be a long process.
“It takes a while to get to a comfort level on these things. It’s a tough issue for people. It’s an emotional issue. It’s a challenging issue to talk about,” he said.
“It’s tough to create spaces, especially where people who work in sex work feel safe to come and participate. These things take time to develop. This is a long-term process.”
Robyn LeGrow, who represents the residents of the Terrier Place-Long’s Hill neighbourhood on the committee, says one of the problems for residents is the confidential nature of the meetings. While she recognizes the need for confidentiality, she says it’s tough for her to build trust with residents and show them that work is being done to address their needs.
“There’s not many people who are optimistic about the Living in Community process. Even those who are open minded, the ones who have been there for eight years, they’d rather see (the sex workers) go,” LeGrow said.
“I’m feeling hopeful. Since I became the residents’ representative, I’ve done a lot of work to try and open up communications between SHOP and us.”
For Alice, one of the sex workers sitting at the table, just being given the opportunity to have her voice heard is all the difference in the world.
“When, ever before, have you heard of sex workers being invited to a roundtable discussion about sex work?” she said.
“People love to talk about sex work and they love to talk about the problems with it and the solutions, but nobody actually asks us. This is the first time, the very first time, that we’re being asked, ‘What do you need? What do you want?’ We’ve never had these conversations before.”