On October 27th, 2020 Maggie's Toronto and SafeSpace London addressed the Standing Committee on the Status of Women discussing the specific struggles sex workers face in the midst of COVID-19.
Full Speech: Video Full Committee Meeting Notes Transcript: Ms. Jenny Duffy (Board Chair, Maggie's: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Project): Maggie's is Canada's oldest by and for sex workers' rights organization, which exists to provide community support services and advocates for the dignity and safety of sex workers.
For the sake of clarity, it is important to emphasize at the outset that as organizations with and of sex workers, SafeSpace London and Maggie's honours and supports the strength, wisdom, experiences, freedom and agency of sex workers who choose to engage in sex work and who wish to work in a safe and dignified work environment—just like workers in any other profession—while also opposing any kind of exploited or coerced labour for sexual purposes.
On the ground, SafeSpace London offers a safe and secure community drop-in space for women and gender minorities who either currently or formerly have engaged in sex work. They offer companionship, the sharing of wisdom, clothing, food, information about bad dates, access to the Internet, harm-reduction related equipment and linkage to other services.
All of this changed dramatically as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020. While social distancing can be an inconvenience to those who are more comfortably situated within our communities, for those who are isolated, abandoned and otherwise left for dead by both governmental bodies and social services, this kind of enforced distancing can be absolutely death-dealing.
During the pandemic, everyone has suffered in some way, but the most vulnerable, to say the most oppressed, suffer in ways that are unbearable, humiliating and extremely painful. As one woman who came to our space early on in the pandemic said to one of our coordinators, with tears in her eyes, “You are my last hug.”
First off, overnight at SafeSpace, we were no longer able to host community members within our small space. Instead, we were only able to offer a very brief, socially distanced peer contact with community members outside of our space, in the parking lot, with no privacy or shelter from weather.
Prior to COVID-19, Maggie's provided street outreach and in-person programming, which included community meals, drop-in legal services, support groups and indigenous-specific programming. Due to the pandemic, we have been challenged to shift our programs online. However, many of our service users lack access to stable Internet connections, and as a result, our indigenous programming in particular has seen a significant drop in participation.
Secondly, the inability of community members to access previously open public spaces has meant that now many lack access to any kind of washroom. Public washrooms are vital spaces for individuals with limited options in our community to have a place to wash their hair and body in the sink, to change, rest while working and to use a toilet. COVID closures left no space for these needs.
It took us several weeks of sustained advocacy on behalf of our community members before the City of London finally installed a porta-potty by our address. However, porta-potties, as we all know, are not exactly as safe, clean or private.... The City chose this simply because it was the cheapest, which again demonstrates the ways in which people actually view those classified as priority populations.
Our ability to continue to rent at our location, which we chose not only due to its cost but because of where it is in relation to sex work that occurs in our city, is now in jeopardy because of the backlash to the porta-potty. Ms. Jenny Duffy:
Thirdly, at Maggie's, where many of our service users struggle already to meet their material needs, the pandemic and the exclusion from the Canadian emergency response benefit put them at even further disadvantage. Due to the lack of government response, we took aid into our own hands and established a mutual aid fund, which received donations totalling over $100,000 that we disbursed to sex workers across the industry who are now struggling to provide for their very basic needs.
While Maggie's has received international praise for establishing one of the biggest mutual aid funds in North America, we continually remind the public that we should never have needed to do this. The creation of a mutual aid fund was the last resort to the government failing vulnerable communities, despite already having heard from countless advocacy groups, including sex workers themselves—receiving thousands of pages of empirical evidence across social service and legal fields—that decriminalization is the first step to an equitable existence for sex workers, and that sex workers are labourers who are entitled to access government support and labour protections just as any other worker.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, numerous other community services raised barriers and began to serve fewer people. Meal programs closed, shelters were overcapacity and many organizations stopped taking new referrals. Almost all community services moved from in-person conversations to virtual or telephone conversations with clients.
We saw an explosion of need in our community. In the sex work community, there is newly created job insecurity. Our community is being further stigmatized due to the government's handling of the pandemic, and without evidence, ordering the closing of safer spaces to work, such as adult entertainment facilities.
A lot of people ended up with nowhere to go for food, nowhere to go for diapers for their babies. A lot of people ended up feeling lonely, stigmatized, with nowhere to go for support or companionship. We recognized the great need in the London community and we committed ourselves as well as we could to pushing onward, because we chose to expand our support to other oppressed, impoverished, criminalized, dispossessed people. We did receive some emergency funding grants, which have supported us to attain PPE and proper sanitization, and we have received some additional support for providing hot meals and other basic-needs items.
As a result, the number of people coming to us for assistance has increased dramatically. We do this, despite what it costs, because we feel that nobody, regardless of who they are, regardless of our particular area of focus, should be abandoned and left to die. Indeed, it costs us. We've literally pooled our own money together to house people when they were turned away from full shelters and couldn't access other organizations to help with funds for hotel rooms. It cost us as individuals as we are trying to meet a far greater need, who are volunteering longer hours without any compensation, all while many of our own jobs are being legislated again, and many of our own bodies are being treated as high risk or dangerous to the public.
Our hours have been expanded from being open three days a week and serving 80 unique individuals before COVID, to now being open five days a week. We went from serving no hot meals pre-COVID, as doing that is not a core mission of our service delivery, to now serving hot meals six days a week to 200 unique individuals. It costs us because we are people who care. We are doing everything we possibly can just to help anyone and everyone to survive.
We are still working through the repercussions of these costs.
Being sidelined while being told you are a priority population is expensive. It costs us.
Thank you very much.