Supportive Housing Reduces Occupational Risks for Sex Workers

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Mike Rich
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A new study conducted by researchers from the University of B.C. and the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV-AIDS found that Canadian sex workers living in supportive housing units were exposed to less violence and disease, such as HIV.

The study, which was published in the “American Journal of Public Health,” was based on interviews with 39 women living in low-threshold, supportive housing programs.

These types of  housing units operate on a harm-reduction model, meaning the women are given a place to live and pay rent, but what they do in their units is their business.

Security measures are in place and include women-only buildings, security cameras, front-desk sign-in procedures for guests and clients, and on-site staff who can call police in the event of violence.

Sex workers interviewed in the study had all previously worked on the street and described how supportive housing programs increased their control over negotiating sex work transactions, including the capacity to refuse unwanted services, negotiate condom use and avoid violent predators. Women’s accounts contrast the safety afforded by these environments with their very limited options to controlling their safety when seeing clients in cars, alleys and clients’ homes.

“This research shows that safer indoor sex work spaces dramatically reduce the risks to the health and safety of sex workers,” says Dr. Kate Shannon, senior author of the study, director of BC-CfE’s Gender and Sexual Health Initiative and assistant professor of medicine at UBC. “We have previously shown that displacement and lack of safer indoor options for street-based sex workers are directly associated with elevated rates of violence and HIV risk. The evidence is clear: We need to scale up access to safer sex work spaces and remove legal barriers to their formal implementation and evaluation.”

The publication of the study follows a decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal that allows sex workers to legally work in safer indoor spaces starting next year. The court concluded that laws preventing sex workers from working together under one roof or hiring security staff fail to protect sex workers and exacerbate harms. While the decision is not currently binding outside Ontario, if upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada the government will be forced to ensure the laws are brought in line with the evidence.

“We have created policies and practices that support women’s choice and ensure their health and safety are protected,” says Amelia Ridgway, Manager of RainCity Housing. “Women have the right to govern their own bodies. We believe that housing is a human right and this is about providing women with the most basic human rights around protection from violence within a harm reduction framework.”

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