Sex-worker support centre struggling to make ends meet in Esquimalt

Change to provincial funding model has proven tough on PEERS

Marion Little

PEERS Victoria is fighting hard to keep its doors open to some of the Capital Region’s most vulnerable people.

In the past three years, the non-profit organization, which helps more than 500 sex workers each year, has seen its monthly provincial funding shrivel from $32,000 to $6,000.

“Our bare-bones budget is $16,000 a month, but we’re continuing to operate on our $6,000 funding because we believe there will be a way to get through this,” said PEERS executive director Marion Little.

The funding shortage is a result of the provincial government’s shift in April from annual grants to a fee-for-service system, where non-profits must apply for individual program grants and register their users in an integrated system.

“We’re not willing to hustle our clients. People can come through our door and receive unconditional welcome,” Little said. “They don’t need to give us their name or social insurance number and can get a hot meal, see a doctor, shower and get clean clothes.”

Historically, PEERS has employed former sex workers to mentor new users. But with a reduction in staff hours, that mentorship model has been postponed due to a lack of supervision, Little said.

“We work with street-involved people, as well as those who are working at escort agencies, ensuring they have access to medical care and can ask the questions they need to ask.”

The organization delivers programs ranging from computer literacy courses to abuse and trauma workshops.

Little spoke at the Esquimalt council meeting Monday. She pleaded with councillors to include PEERS in its annual list of permissive tax exemptions, after the non-profit inadvertently missed the application deadline.

“A tax exemption is about $10,000 a year to us. That’s a big deal,” she said.

Council was sympathetic to Little, who explained 60 to 70 per cent of PEERS users live in Esquimalt, while the majority of other users live along the township’s boundaries.

Councillors Dave Hodgins and Tim Morrison opposed the inclusion of PEERS in tax exemptions, reasoning that council needs to take a stand against the downloading of costs from higher levels of government. “The more we step in to fill that void, the more downloading will occur,” Hodgins told council.

While Mayor Barb Desjardins agreed that cost downloading is a problem, she said the one-year tax exemption will give PEERS a chance to source out new funding. “This is a group that are situated in Esquimalt, and they are a group that are going to come out and participate at the Celebration of Lights and are involved in other events,” she said.

Council approved permissive tax exemptions for 14 organizations worth nearly $78,000 at a time when it desperately needs to balance its budget.

Coun. Meagan Brame indicated council will need to reduce the number of tax exemptions it doles out for next year’s budget to help share anticipated costs, including the expected $200 to $300 per household hit for the Capital Regional District’s $782-million secondary sewage treatment project.

dpalmer@vicnews.com