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New Hope Society offers refuge for sex trade workers

Violence can be a constant concern if you're a sex trade worker. Prince George is no exception, but over the past 10 years one organization has created an indoor oasis away from the hard realities of the street.

Violence can be a constant concern if you're a sex trade worker.

Prince George is no exception, but over the past 10 years one organization has created an indoor oasis away from the hard realities of the street.

"The women have some place safe to go to get off the street and away from the violence and discrimination and racism," said Janet Wilson, who has been New Hope Society's project coordinator for the past six years.

The organization opened the city's first drop-in centre for sex trade workers in 2005, and though the situation has improved, Wilson still hears stories on a weekly basis about violent experiences.

"I'm not going to say 52 weeks [a year], but lots of weeks. Way too many," she said. "There's still a lot of violence."

She estimates on a given day 15 to 30 women - or people who are living as women - use the drop-in. She doesn't make women sign in, so it's difficult to say how many women pass through New Hope each year, though Wilson said it's easily more than 100.

"Every one of them have had trauma in their life," said Wilson, adding the majority are survival sex trade workers, meaning they have little choice. "They're some of the toughest women you're ever going to meet. They have survived through some of the most horrendous ordeals you can even think of."

Wednesday was the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers but Wilson talks safety and sex work on a daily basis.

Wilson wasn't comfortable saying whether there was less violence on the part of the perpetrators, but could say that the woman are better equipped with defensive strategies through its workshops.

The list is long.

"Don't be high or drunk. Wear clothing you don't have to take off. Wear shoes can run in, so they can be easily slipped off," Wilson rattles off a few. "Don't wear anything around your neck - somebody can strangle you with it. Work in pairs."

The society hands out whistles and cell phones to call 911 - items that can't be used against them.

"Work in well lit places. Yeah, that's not working here," Wilson said. "Once they got pushed out of the downtown, [now] they're working in places that are not very well lit."

Although the organization has as good relationship with the RCMP's sex crimes worker, the women are still reluctant to come forward.

"There is so many factors," said Wilson of the reasons women don't report violence. "It's the same old story. If they do, what happens to the offender - nothing. He's back out on the street, beating them up."

And there can be pressure to report, which Wilson said is not the right approach.

"I've seen women totally beat up and not even go to hospital because they pressure them to report. They're already afraid. They're already beat up. Just let them make the choices," she said. "Treat them and make it about them first and not about who did this."

The centre is open five days a week - a far cry from the lone Sunday hours when it opened in 2005. Now it has enough core funding to get through to 2016, but come the New Year Wilson said the society will have search for a new home when the building at Fourth Avenue is sold.

Wilson said the centre is the one place where the women can be themselves.

"They don't have to be this tough street person," she said.

It's also been that for her.

"When I first walked into this place and met some of the girls, it felt like this is where I was meant to be," Wilson said. "We love these girls unconditionally.

"They have hopes, they have dreams, they're so caring, they're so giving. I know a lot of the people out on the street don't get to see that because [the women] have to go into survival mode."