by Belinda Squance

I moved into the West End of Winnipeg over nine years ago. I first lived on Furby at Sargent. To say it was a rough part of the neighbourhood might be an understatement. However I always felt safe. Nothing bad ever happened to me.

When a supposed crack house appeared across the street things seemed to be a bit more active. In the two and a half years I lived there, there were a few shootings, a couple of stabbings, two sexual assaults, and a curb stomping…that I knew of. I came home or woke up to police tape on my street more than once.

Yet I still felt safe. For reasons I cannot explain I almost seem invisible in my neighbourhood. When people talk to me they are kind.

The same cannot be said for other women in my community. It was my first winter on Furby when I awoke one morning to the sound of a woman calling for help. I looked down from my third floor window to the walkway between my apartment building and the building next door to see a man on top of a woman. At least that is what it looked like. It was dark. I phoned 911. It seemed to take forever for help to arrive. Thankfully people came along and helped the woman. The police came and took the victim to hospital.

That incident left me shaken. And upset. It was just after 4 in the morning so there was a good chance she had been working at Furby and Sargent. It was a regular spot for women working in the sex trade.  I could not stop thinking about the woman all day. She was in my thoughts and prayers constantly.

It was then I started to ask around to find out what outreach there was to women in the sex trade in the West End. I met with Harry Lehotsky and Larry Gregan at New Life Ministries. It was a good conversation. Yet I soon realised there was nothing.

I wanted to change that. I am the type of person who sees a problem and likes to solve it. Is there a need? Great. Let us work together to find a way to meet it. Yet I was a ‘square’ suburban woman and what could I possibly know about reaching out and connecting with women in the sex trade?

Another one of my traits is knowing when to ask for help. I am also really good at finding out answers to questions. So I started asking around. It did not take long for me to get a group of women together with the same interest. We met in my Furby flat and started talking about what was out there and what was still needed. We dreamt big dreams. I put a map of the city on foam core board and put pins on it for every location we knew of that offered supports to women. (I still have it too.)

Then life changed. Things stalled. The dreams were put on hold. Life has a way of doing that at times. Yet I firmly believed it would revive again. The important changes take time. Big ideas need to be nurtured. I truly believe there is a time for everything.

I waited. Patiently. I knew that time would mean better things in the long run. Now, years later, many things are starting to come together. People are crossing my path who have ideas, wisdom, and help to offer. Opportunities are presenting themselves to me in new ways. The idea even has a name. “Hope Grows” I truly want hope to grow for women who have not had much hope in their lives.

I understand there are many who do not care about women in the sex trade. I know there are many who do not understand why I do.

Let me try to explain. I firmly believe every single person is worth exactly the same in life. We all deserve respect, dignity, love, safety, and hope. So when I see people in the world around me who (and I know this is debatable to many – not to me though and this is my blog) have never been treated with that respect, dignity, love, safety, and hope they deserve I want to do something about it.

There are some working in the sex trade who want to be there. I am not writing about them. I am writing about the (primarily) women in the sex trade who started when they were not even a teenager because an adult made them, a boyfriend made them, or whatever reason that was not their choice. I am writing about those who do not want to be there but are trapped. I am writing about those who are victims.

There are people in my city who are out on the streets right now waiting for a complete stranger to stop, pick them up, and offer them money for sex. For those who do not want to be there, I want to help. I want to be a part of the solution, their solution.

This week I had the opportunity to join a group of women who meet every other week. They are a mix of some in the sex trade and some no longer but still close. This week I went to help teach them to knit. If you ever want to get to know someone, sit and do a craft with them. It is possibly the most disarming thing you can do. I was blessed to spend time with an amazing group of women. There were three of them and the two leading the group. One of the women leading the group was someone I met many years ago when she was still in the midst of addiction and the sex trade. She remembers our first meeting. We were painting. I made her cry (long story). But she was glad I did. To this day she remembers that time with fondness.

As the women tried knitting I was so happy to see they accepted me. To some I am known simply as ‘the church lady’. If you know me, this thought will make you laugh as much as it does me. Yet they allow me in. As long as they do so I will try to do whatever I can to help restore their own dignity and respect so they can live the life they truly want to and were meant to.

It may have taken almost nine years but hope is finally starting to grow.