Vernon’s sex trade workers have been offered a glimmer of hope through a local organization.
Helping Out People Exploited — H.O.P.E. — Outreach has spread smiles, warmth and self-respect to the city’s sex trade workers for more than two years.
“Since we went live on Oct. 1, 2017, we’ve served 102 women,” volunteer co-ordinator Caitlyn Parkinson said.
“Now we are going out seven nights a week.”
H.O.P.E. started with Angie Lohr, who spearheaded the group following her own struggle and recovery.
“Our president Angie is a survivor of the sex trade so a lot of the women know her,” Parkinson said.
Volunteers like Lohr allow for women to trust H.O.P.E., Parkinson said, and they feel comfortable enough to confide in staff and, just maybe, find a glimmer of hope.
Volunteers hit the downtown core streets every night with supply bags, including hygiene items, snacks, warm clothing and more.
A group of around 20 serve between 30 to 40 women every night. That’s just in Vernon.
H.O.P.E. in Kelowna — which has been operating since 2008 — sees between 50 and 85 women a night.
“A lot of our women will go between Kelowna and Vernon,” said Parkinson, during a recent dinner the women were treated to courtesy of Boston Pizza.
While primarily focused on the sex trade, H.O.P.E. is also an advocate for homeless and exploited women in the Okanagan.
Along with offering compassion, kindness and support, H.O.P.E. puts safety at the forefront with bad date reporting.
Women can report bad dates, which are sent to the RCMP and, sometimes, notices are posted at health centres and other places of support.
The women are also assisted in various aspects of realizing their own dreams of living a safe and healthy life.
“When the housing was opening up here in town, a lot of our volunteers went out and helped the women fill out applications,” Parkinson said.
Kelowna used to offer a safe place for women to get off the streets via the House of Hope.
“We (brought) in anyone who need(ed) a bed in the Okanagan,” H.O.P.E. executive director Kathleen MacKinnon said.
Several women served by H.O.P.E. are struggling with addictions, but MacKinnon said 75 per cent of those assisted in recovery are still clean and sober.
The House of Hope saw more than 350 women, of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds, but due to high costs of programming and staffing it closed in 2018.
The goal is to reopen the house in 2021, but H.O.P.E. said it can’t do it alone.
The outreach group is totally funded by donations—from the makeup and clothes it distributes, to the food served on special nights and the clean needles distributed.
A variety of items are needed year-round, including toothpaste, dental floss, toothbrushes, chocolate bars, candies, juice boxes, water bottles, makeup, hair ties, hair brushes and combs, small tissue packages, sweaters, winter coats, jewelry, re-usable water bottles, gloves and mittens, hats, women’s socks, gift cards, tampons, razors and Q-Tips.
A group of anonymous North Okanagan women recently donated 80 stuffed purses to the Vernon H.O.P.E. Outreach team to distribute. Many of them were given out just in time for Christmas, and more will be handed out for Valentine’s Day.
The North Okanagan Friendship Centre Society also provides space for special events, including the recent pizza dinner. Other local restaurants and businesses have donated gift cards and food vouchers to support the organization.
Anyone who wants to help raise hope can join the volunteer orientation in Kelowna Feb. 16 and in Vernon on Feb. 23 at People Place, RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.