Van shortage forces mobile Vancouver sex worker assistance program off the road for 1st time in its history

·3 min read
In 2021, staff at the Mobile Access project say they handed out over 100,000 sterile needles and 53,000 condoms and had just over 21,000 interactions with people participating in the program. (Submitted by WISH Drop-in Centre Society/Wendy D. Photography - image credit)
In 2021, staff at the Mobile Access project say they handed out over 100,000 sterile needles and 53,000 condoms and had just over 21,000 interactions with people participating in the program. (Submitted by WISH Drop-in Centre Society/Wendy D. Photography - image credit)

Mebrat Beyene, the executive director for the WISH Drop-In Centre Society, never imagined global supply chain issues would prevent her non-profit from supporting sex workers.

But, for the first time in 17 years, staff working with the Mobile Access Project — known as the MAP van — don't have a roadworthy vehicle.

"We feel like we're letting people down," Beyene told CBC on Friday. "It is the only service of its kind in Vancouver."

Beyene says the latest MAP van dealt with a lot of wear and tear over the past seven years, and a week ago, mechanical issues got so bad it was no longer safe to drive. The replacement needs to be brand new to handle daily trips to all parts of the city, but unfortunately, there aren't any vans on the market.

"Even though we have secured the funding from the province of B.C. to purchase and customize a new van, the supply isn't there," said Beyene.

She says the wait time to buy a suitable replacement is anywhere from six months to a year, and the same supply chain issues have also made renting or leasing "prohibitively expensive."

Wendy D. Photography
Wendy D. Photography

In the meantime, WISH has put a call out to anyone in the city willing to donate or lend a 12-15 passenger van with all but four seats removed, something similar to the Amazon delivery vehicles often spotted around town.

"We are starting to get some bites, and so we're working with each of those leads to see what's available … and what might work for us," she said.

Unique service

Alexis Flynn, the program co-ordinator for SAFE (Sex work Awareness For Everyone), says the MAP Van is one of a kind because it travels not only through the Downtown Eastside but also to other parts of the city where there are little to no resources for sex workers. Staff typically work two shifts, from 12 to 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

"They go all over Vancouver. They're the only option for women to get supplies, food, and report bad dates — one of the only ones," said Flynn.

"You can get your stuff, what you need to work safely."

The MAP Van collects used needles, hands out condoms, hygiene products, supplies for safe drug use, plus clothing donations, snacks, drinks and the occasional hot meal. Staff can also provide peer support and connect people to social and mental health resources.

Perhaps the most important service the MAP Van offers is compiling "bad date" reports and handing out a weekly list of clients flagged by sex workers for being violent or aggressive, issuing threats, trying to steal from them or refusing to pay.

"Aside from what they provide … there's a safety piece, a comfort piece," said Flynn. "Knowing that they'll be up there in that area around that time."

In 2021, MAP van staff say they handed out over 100,000 sterile needles and 53,000 condoms and had just over 21,000 interactions with people participating in the program.

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