Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gender Issues: Steps away from Olympic flame, "Living Library" helps women escape prostitution, drug abuse and violence.

Only a few blocks from the thousands of fans near the Olympic cauldron in Vancouver, a small non-profit organization is working to help women escape prostitution, drug abuse and violence. The Atira Women's Resource Society is hoping the Olympics will bring attention to an ongoing need.

Just east of the Olympic flame, there is a library that few of the thousands of sports fans in Vancouver will ever visit.

The books here are not made of paper; the books are people. The "Living Library" is an opportunity for people to talk to Vancouver residents who are homeless, recovering alcoholics or sex workers.

The Living Library was established by the Atira Women's Resource Society. Janice Abbott (photo) is Atira's director. She says most of the women she works with come from violent and sexually abusive relationships.

"We work primarily with women who are struggling with substance abuse, struggling with mental illness, have had multiple experiences of violence, and we house them," she said. "But we have a bunch of related support programs as well."

One of the facilities Abbott helps manage is Bridge House, which offers women refuge with their own bathrooms, kitchens and living spaces. The goal is to help women reestablish their lives. The Atira Women's Resource Society also offers counseling and group therapy.

Abbott says that the Living Library is trying to reach the thousands of Winter Olympics fans, many of whom have no idea about the people who are only a few blocks away.

"When I am at home or when I am in my office here, I would not know the Olympics are happening in this city. They are so far removed. And I have been to a couple of hockey games and so I know, and that's what -- five or six blocks away from here? Right here, you would not know the Olympics are happening in the city. It's like they've passed us by," she explained.

But Abbott says that the city has allocated money to provide affordable housing, for which she says she is thankful.

One of the Living Library's "books" is Cherry Kingsley, a former sex worker who is moving into Bridge House. Kingsley is excited as she and Abbott load a suitcase into the elevator to take her belongings to her new apartment.

The apartment is small. A door is missing under the kitchen sink and there is a hole in the wall near the window. A single light bulb hangs above the table. There are a couple of pieces of furniture, small sofas without cushions, and a small table. But it smells of fresh paint and repairs are underway.

The Kingsley, 39, first came to Vancouver when she was 14. She became involved in prostitution at the insistence of a former boyfriend, who beat her, and forced her to sell her body the first night they arrived.

Kingsley eventually became involved in drugs, worked the streets and was robbed. She went to a local church, which got her in a shelter. She eventually made her way to the Atira Women's Resource Society.

Kingsley says she wants Olympics visitors to understand the devastating effects of prostitution.

"The fact is I was beaten, raped, exploited, brutalized almost every day," she noted. "That's the reality. And I didn't have control over the things that happened to me or to my body. And I didn't make large sums of money. You can see I am only starting to get my life together now, and that's out of the sex trade; that's not in the sex trade."

Kingsley says the help she received has enabled her to work toward the future, and that having her own apartment makes a huge difference in rebuilding her life.

"I can do things that are good for me, you know, not just try to exist hand-to-mouth or in survival mode, you know? I can start to cook food that is good for me, you know? Yeah, I mean it's a completely different way of life when you have your own place," she noted.

Despite Janice Abbott's and Cherry Kingsley's efforts, the Living Library faces challenges in getting its message out. Located in a former storefront, it is next to a recycling center where homeless and indigent men and women bring cans in exchange for money. On this day, a line of 100 people waiting to turn in their cans snakes down the block.

But Abbott says she hopes that a few of the fans in Vancouver for the Games will visit. She also hopes that if they do "check out a book," they will gain an understanding of some of the people who live and survive, often unnoticed, in the Olympics host city.

David Byrd
Published with the permission of Voice of America

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