She’s been an addict all her life. “And I’ll be an addict for the rest of my life,” she says. 

But the opportunity to train as a peer support worker for sex trade workers, many of whom are addicts too, has changed her life.

“I used to be high from the time I woke up until the time I couldn’t stand any longer to get high,” she says. “That’s how bad of an addict I was.” 

Now she’s a “soft user” and has been housed for 7 years. She’s taken back her life and enjoys helping her peers.

“It’s such a pleasure to be on the face of this earth doing something positive,” say Brandi, a graduate of the peer support worker program at Street Health that addresses violence against sex trade workers.

“Everything I’ve done in my life hasn’t always been positive.”

On Friday, Street Health Community Nursing Foundation, in conjunction with the Regent Park Community Health Centre and the Bad Date Coalition released their new documentary entitled “The Safer Stroll Project”.

Filmmaker Hugh Gibson, a writer, producer and director of numerous short films and documentaries, produced the Safer Stroll Project.

“I was so glad to meet everyone and have them share their experiences,” says Gibson. 

“I wanted to thank Karla (Dozzi) and Mary Kay (MacVicar) and Josie (Riccaardi) for giving me the opportunity to make this movie.”

When Mary Kay MacVicar joined Street Health as the Harm Reduction Programs coordinator, the community-based agency, providing physical and mental health programs to homeless and under-housed individuals in the southeast core of Toronto, already had some unique peer-based programs for crack addicts.

But nothing for sex workers. So she and Wendy Babcock, a former Street Health employee, decided to do something about it.

After submitting a proposal to the Status of Women Canada in 2007, Street Health received an 18 month funding base to get the program off the ground. When that ended, the agency secured funding from the City of Toronto for training and mentorship activities the women do in the community.

“One of the toughest decisions we have is that the demand is larger than what we can provide spots for,” says MacVicar.

Following the interview process, five candidates are selected to participate in a 17 week training session. They meet once a week for four hours. 

Upon completing the training, they’re ready to do outreach with some of the Street Health nurses to encourage sex workers to come to the Friday morning drop-in at All Saints Church. Other peer support workers facilitate the drop-in programs.

Over the past three years, 25 sex workers have trained as peer support workers.

“In life you can make a change and there are people who care and are willing to work with you,” says Teisha, another graduate of the Safer Sex Stroll Project.

The Project boasts an 80 per cent graduation rate. One graduate enrolled in a community college program. Local community agencies hired two graduates.

“If there is going to be any action and any planning for real meaningful change,” says Angela Robertson,   Director of Equity and Community Engagement at Women’s College Hospital, “then the women with the lived experiences must be at the table as the voice to talk about what needs to be in place to keep them safe.”

Through their work, peer support workers have made 1,878 contacts with sex workers, 3,988 referrals to community resources and delivered 52 educational workshops to community organizations.

“Sex work is real work,” says Amy Muli, Co-chair of the Bad Date Coalition. “It’s hard work.”

Wendy Babcock established the Bad Date Coalition in 2004 to address the high levels of injustice and violence faced by sex workers. The group publishes a monthly bad date book report.  

“Unfortunately, we are a needed service,” says Muli. 

“Because it’s a worker’s right to go to work and not get murdered on the job.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.