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Second prostitute-support group running out of money

Kerry Porth (second from left), a former sex worker, is spokesperson for PACE seen here at her office in Vancouver November 15, 2011 during a meeting with her colleagues also former sex workers.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A support group for prostitutes that has been a fixture of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside for 17 years will run out of money in three weeks.

Providing Alternatives Counselling and Education Society, also known as PACE, is the second well-established organization led by former prostitutes to reveal this week that programs for some of the most vulnerable people in the city's poorest neighbourhood may be discontinued this spring.

Earlier this week, PEERS Vancouver, a group that helps prostitutes who want to leave the trade, announced it would close its doors on March 31 as a result of changes in provincial government funding.

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PACE has also come under increased financial pressure, as the number of street-level prostitutes involved with it has grown to the highest level ever while financial support from the provincial government and the private sector has dropped, said executive director Kerry Porth Tuesday in an interview.

Its number of clients ballooned to 196 this year from 50 in 2008. "It's rapidly becoming more than we can handle," Ms. Porth said. However, only one of 20 grant applications over the past two years has been successful, she added, and it brought in only $2,490.

"It is bitterly ironic, in the middle of [the Pickton]inquiry, the two organizations that provide direct support to help people in their lives and help people transition out of the trade are facing extinction," Ms. Porth said. The inquiry, which is holding public hearings, is looking into the police investigation of the killing of about 20 prostitutes from 1997 to 2002.

"These individuals [the street prostitutes]need serious help and that help will not be there," she said. "We do not want to see the loss of the only two sex-worker-led organizations in Vancouver."

Mary Clare Zak, Vancouver's director of social policy, said PACE and PEERS are feeling the impact of recent government cutbacks and changes across the economy, similar to other social-service agencies. However, trying to raise funds to help prostitutes is especially difficult, she said. "It is more of a challenge."

Vancouver City Council is looking to private foundations and federal and provincial governments to provide more support for the work that PACE and PEERS do, Ms. Zak said. "These are the services that are needed to keep women safe," she said. "The work that PACE does, in terms of life skills and support for women, is absolutely critical."

PACE is run by former prostitutes with a mission to support sex workers with harm-reduction programs. Staff help women find housing, medical care and counselling as well as provide violence-prevention workshops. PACE was one of several community groups that were refused funding to participate in the Missing Women's Inquiry.

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According to its 2010 tax return, PACE received $66,650 from the city, $33,526 from the B.C. government and $14,148 from Ottawa. Donors contributed $95,000. The B.C. government cut its grant to PACE this year, Ms. Porth said. The organization hopes to restore and expand its funds through provincial gaming grants, which will be announced in February.

But without funding next month, the group may not be around next spring, Ms. Porth said. PACE will run out of money to pay its staff of six on Dec. 8.

The organization has asked the City of Vancouver to provide emergency funding to carry the organization until February. City council will consider the request in mid-December.

The funds would be an advance on the annual grant that PACE receives from city hall, Ms. Zak said. Typically, the funds would not be released until the spring. If council approves, the funds would be available earlier.

Ms. Porth questioned whether the request for funds would receive support from both the left-wing Vision Vancouver party and the right-wing Non-Partisan Association. However, NPA mayoral contender Suzanne Anton said she "absolutely" supported the work of PACE. The organization has received longstanding support from city councils of all political stripes, she said in an interview.

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