Local sex work advocacy organization, Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP) collaborated with Happy City St. John’s to bring representatives of the Vancouver-based organization Living in Community to town to discuss community safety and collaboration.

The three-day initiative included a series of meetings with community stakeholders as well as a public information session. The aim was to discuss applying Living in Community’s unique model for making communities where sex work happens safer for everyone to St. John’s.

“What we’ve seen is the displacement of sex workers from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and it just becomes some other neighbourhood’s problem. It doesn’t address any of the actual issues, it doesn’t increase safety, it doesn’t decrease the stigma that sex workers are facing and neighbourhoods might be facing,” Heather Jarvis, SHOP’s Program Coordinator said.

Living in Community launched in 2003 in response to the tragic death and disappearance of a large number of sex workers in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. The organization created a steering committee comprised of; residents, police, community organizers, sex workers, businesses, and government.

The committee fostered balanced discussions about people’s concerns and hopes for their neighbourhoods and eventually produced an action plan for creating a safer, healthier community.

“These are complicated issues that matter and there are no overnight solutions, but one of the incredible things that Living in Community has been able to do is develop relationships between people with very different lived experiences, increasing trust and understanding,” said Jarvis.

Jarvis says Living in Community has built on those relationships to find creative solutions for moving forward on issues like policy change, adapting service provision, and understanding the role of law enforcement.

“We need to look at what Living in Community has done, their successes, and some of their mistakes and lessons learned. We need to make sure we are applying it to our context. We need to make sure it fits our city in terms of language, different municipal bylaws, different policing structures, and local sex worker needs,” Jarvis said.

Using Living in Community’s model, SHOP and Happy City have been organizing closed meetings with community stakeholders in areas where sex work happens in St. John’s for the past year. They spoke to residents who were sex working and those who weren’t, law enforcement, and representatives of Thrive’s Street Reach program, among others.

Jarvis believes that having a smaller population has some advantages when it comes to applying Living in Community’s model. Being a smaller city means more access to government officials, and makes it easier to connect across organizations and communities. Jarvis says Living in Community were impressed by how far St. John’s has already come in terms of creating relationships and starting a dialogue.

“We are feeling very tired from all the work that’s gone into this, but also hopeful because of the enthusiasm we’ve heard from all the people we’ve met with who want to do something and move forward. We’re very hopeful that this model can come to our city, in our own way, as the first city outside of Vancouver in all of Canada to apply it,” Jarvis said about wrapping up the three-day initiative.