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Help sex workers while they're still alive

We spent $20 million to gather enough evidence to charge Willie Pickton with murder. We spent another $46 million to convict him.

I guess we'll just have to take Attorney General Wally Oppal's word that we may need to spend many millions more to try Pickton all over again -- for zero gain, seeing as the mass murderer has already been handed the maximum sentence for his crimes against B.C. women.

But what a difference the smallest fraction of all that money could have made in changing the lives of the broken women Pickton preyed upon.

With the prison gates barely closed on Pickton, another serial killer has already emerged on the Lower Mainland. In Edmonton, where 20 survival sex workers have been murdered in the past two decades, police have begun collecting DNA samples from other street workers to make it easier to identify them should they, too, turn up dead.

While Pickton was on trial this summer and media were feasting on the sad stories of his victims, two of the three non-profits that help Vancouver's survival sex workers nearly went under due to a lack of funding.

During the 10 years it took us to decide whether we should even worry about scores of missing women on our streets, and on through three years of investigations and court proceedings, countless women working B.C.'s rough streets continued to be beaten, raped and killed.

With all respect to the families of Pickton's victims, what has been gained? One man is behind bars for the rest of his life, but virtually nothing has changed for hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of survival sex workers in B.C. And the best our attorney general can come up with is a plan to retry the same guy.

"Will the Pickton case change things for sex workers?" I lost track of how often media asked me that last year when the trial was on and I was executive director of Victoria's Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society.

A few asked if I thought women would "be more careful" now, perhaps even quit working the streets. That they could even ask that underlined for me how little they understood about why those women were out there.

It should be no mystery by now, not after all these years of talk, talk and more talk about the dangerous lives of street-level sex workers.

The bottom line is they need money and it's available on the streets. In Victoria alone, 300 or so different women and children will work our streets in a typical year; on any given night, as many as 30 women work the strolls along Rock Bay and Government Street. They wouldn't be out there if no one was buying them.

That was one of the most gut-wrenching realizations I had in my time at PEERS: There's so much demand for paid sex that no level of disability, poor health or tragic circumstance is enough to render a woman unfit for the sex trade from the buyer's point of view.

What needs to be done to bring about real change? In the grand scheme of things, not much -- which is what makes the whole matter that much more tragic.

For the women out there right now: Supported housing; addiction treatment; care that meets their needs; a safer place to work. I can't fathom why we deny them that.

For the women and children still to come: Loving, healthy families; help with life's challenges; educational support. The child at risk of becoming a survival sex worker -- or one of the twisted men who prey on them -- needs only what anyone needs to grow into a happy, healthy adult.

To stop men from buying sex outdoors on the streets -- and it does need to stop -- the answer will ultimately be increased police enforcement.

PEERS Vancouver -- the agency that lost eight of its 11 staff members in the summer after Ottawa pulled the plug on two of its key programs -- is seeing that scenario play out right now on the streets of the Downtown Eastside. A police crackdown on the street trade is pushing sex workers even deeper into the shadows, where they're that much more vulnerable to men like Willie Pickton.

Obviously we need to continue to chase down killers, even at great cost.

But surely we should first and foremost try to help women while they're still alive. The families of Pickton's victims would undoubtedly trade retribution in a heartbeat for the services and support that might have saved their loved ones in the first place.

In the grim little news segment this week about the two Abbotsford murders, the news anchor commented that "advocates are hoping their deaths will spur change." Unfortunately, hope alone just won't cut it.

Times Colonist - Victoria,British Columbia,Canada