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'Heartbreaking': Vancouver outreach van serving street-based sex workers taken off the road for first time ever

This photo shows WISH Drop-in Centre's Mobile Access Project (MAP) Van which has been serving street-based sex workers for 17 years. This photo shows WISH Drop-in Centre's Mobile Access Project (MAP) Van which has been serving street-based sex workers for 17 years.

For street-based sex workers in Vancouver, a van that has been driving around the city at night for the past 17 years is more than just a van – it's a safe harbour and a lifeline. But for the first time ever, it's been taken off the road.

WISH Drop-In Centre Society's MAP (Mobile Access Project) van operates in two shifts, one during the day and another overnight. Staff drive pretty much the same route every night, a reliable and accessible presence for people who can often find themselves in precarious and dangerous circumstances.

Executive director Mebrat Beyene says it never occurred to her that global supply chain issues due to the pandemic would be the reason why the organization would have to suspend such a critical service.

"We were in a heartbreaking situation with the MAP van program right now. This is the first time something like this has ever happened to us," she says. "It's particularly sad because it's not even about funding, which is the usual issue."


Putting on about 3,000 kilometres each month, the current van was starting to wear down. Recently it got to the point where it was starting to smoke every time they took it out. Frustratingly, she says the funding has been secured to buy a brand new one but there is simply nothing available to purchase. While the van has been repaired multiple times, it's gotten to the point where it just wasn't safe to send out.

"We basically have done everything possible to keep it running, and we've hit an untenable point. We've literally pulled the van off the road which means the program is, in effect, suspended," she says.

"This is a real predicament that we would never have imagined could be a problem."

The estimate for how long it will take for something to be available for purchase is anywhere from six to 12 months. From providing harm reduction supplies, to offering cups of coffee and clothing, to facilitating reporting of "bad dates" – it's often the only social or community service being accessed by those it serves, according to Beyene.

In 2021, the van provided an average of 298 clean needles per day, along with an average of 147 condoms and 180 snacks. Beyene explains that the van goes beyond meeting immediate, physical needs.

"Then there's the whole piece of safety. The van may or may not change predatory behavior, but it's certainly a safe harbour for a lot of street-based sex workers. They can text the van, they can flag the van down, people know to expect the van," she says.

"A lot of the strolls, especially outside of the Downtown Eastside, there's nothing else around. So the likelihood of not being able to have respite or have witnesses is really, really worrisome especially for those folks who depend on the van … In fact, the bulk of their time is not spent in the Downtown Eastside, it's in neighborhoods that are very underserved."


Renting or leasing is too expensive to be sustainable, according to Beyene. What the organization is appealing for is a vehicle that can be donated while the organization wait for one to be available for purchase. Minivans won’t work because they are too small and there needs to be enough room in the back to accommodate supplies as well as staff and clients.

"We're looking, we're wondering and hoping and praying that there might be a vehicle out there that can be loaned to WISH," Beyene says, adding the City of Vancouver is looking at its fleet to see if there is anything that will fit the bill.

On Tuesday, Beyene said the van had just been returned from yet another trip to the mechanic and was being tested to see if it could withstand a night on the road.

"If we can go for one shift we're going to go out right but it's that day-to-day, it's that tenuous."

Anyone who thinks they can help is being urged to contact the organization. Top Stories

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