Thursday, October 1, 1998. No. 134

Gareth Kirkby

p. 9.

Prostitutes fear for safety

The gentrification of Yaletown endangers the livelihood and even the lives of streetworkers

City hall is digging up the road in Vancouver "Boystown" and for those who work the streets, the construction has become a symbol of the way lives are being turned upside down by city hall.

Two large backhoes are digging a strip down the centre of Homer St. between Drake and Davie to install earthquake-proof water pipes. Male prostitutes have largely moved a block to the north and the confusion is costing them some customers.

But it's not the short term construction that's upsetting those who earn their living on the street -- it's the rapid transformation of Downtown South.

"They've pushed us off Davie years ago, before I was here," says Jacob Tree, 19. "Now they're putting up all these buildings. What are we supposed to do? Where are we supposed to go?"

Tree runs off briefly to try and engage a "date" before returning to discuss the gentrification of the once commercial and industrial neighbourhood.

Some days he wishes Boystown had a more "secluded" address, says Tree. He's tired of police hassling the professionals because some surrounding residents -- most of them recent arrivals to the neighbourhood -- want the boys out.

In recent months, the pros have gradually been moving from the corner of Drake and Davie to around Richards and Drake.

And they're appearing later at night to avoid confrontations with area residents who tell them to leave and with customers of the Palladium at Richards and Drake.

One longtime observer notes that fewer male prostitutes appeared to be working the streets of Downtown South this summer; in 1997, up to 15 could be observed closely packed along Homer St.

In the last two years, the Downtown South neighbourhood has experienced a major boom of condominium development. New towers include Space, Murchies, The Grafton and Metropolis, along with the massive Concord Pacific development further to the east. Hundreds of new residents -- including a substantial number of relatively affluent gay men -- have transformed the neighbourhood. City hall's plan for Downtown South calls for 600 new dwelling units in the "new Yaletown" by the year 2021.

City planners are unaware of any effort to reach out to male prostitutes for their input when the plan was being developed in 1990-91.

The neighbourhood transformation worries Andrew Barker, co-ordinator of the Man to Man support and education program at AIDS Vancouver.

"Their safety might be jeopardized," says Barker. "Not that it was that safe to begin with. Now they've got to worry about not just johns and police, but other people."

At least seven female prostitutes were killed on the job in 1997, mainly in the Downtown Eastside, says longtime activist Jamie Lee Hamilton.

Barker is especially concerned that the prostitutes will increasingly work in isolation. Having a large number around at one time provides a safety network on the streets as the prostitutes watch out for each other, he says. And the daily acknowledgement that others care about you is vital for self-esteem and safe sex practices.

The Man to Man project operates an unfunded safe drop-in space for male sex workers. Barker would like to see city hall, Victoria and Ottawa fund a number of support services for prostitutes, including exiting and support programs and HIV education.

"These guys must be treated as equal citizens. There's more stigma in society for male sex trade workers than for females."

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Created: October 3, 1998
Last modified: August 27, 1999

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