Turned out on the streets of Vancouver’s poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside at age 11, the 36-year-old feels lucky to be alive.
Since having her story told in The Tyee, she has decided to leave the business and change her life. But despite her determination it promises to be a long road. (Related: Angel's Story: Trapped in a Violent World)
She said she has been off crack cocaine since February 20 and no longer walks the streets to prostitute, limiting her work to seeing two of her “regulars” to earn money to survive.
Gates, originally from Haida Nation in northern British Columbia, lives in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The neighborhood is known as Canada’s poorest, its streets rife with poverty, drug addiction and prostitution. But it’s also where she got low-income housing and feels a sense of community, which influenced her decision to get out of the business.
“I just feel safer,” she said. “And if I was working, I could bring [clients] here and I’m safe here.”
She was accepted into a unit that she pays $375 for, enough to have a little extra after her welfare and disability checks come in. Gates said she suffers from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, connected to her history of family abuse.
“In this place that I’m in, there’s a ten-year waiting list,” she said. She was fast-tracked because she kept coming home to her stepfather, who lives in the building, having been “beaten up one too many times,” she said.
Indeed, these single-room-occupancy housing units are becoming less and less available as the Downtown Eastside gentrifies.
She’s unsure of where to go from here. The lack of resources to tide her over while she learns a trade makes it difficult to leave prostitution. Prostitutes who want to exit have had even less support since the only agency that helped them leave the life was shut down two years ago. But despite such obstacles, Gates has hope and ambition.
“I would like to either work with terminally ill people or as an advocate for prostitutes,” she said. “Or I would like to go to beauty school or something like that. But I’m not sure what I’m interested in and I’m not sure what I’ll do unless I have some sort of permanent income.”
Since quitting drugs, Gates has felt an urge to reconnect with her family.
“Because I’m sober it freaks people out,” she said of her current crowd. “I mean, I still have a drink or two. But I mean it freaks people out when you’re not high with them. I am really lonely.”
Her three children are being taken care of by family members or their father. She reconnected with two of them: an older daughter who lives in Quebec, and a younger one who just turned eight.
Gates feels lucky to have made it to 36, considering that she was turned out as a prostitute at 11 in the Downtown Eastside. Women often go missing and turn up—or not—murdered. The arrest and conviction of serial killer Robert Pickton got just one such person off the streets. Either way, prostitutes meet with frequent violence, she said.
“I don’t know how many people I’ve escaped,” Gates said. “By the grace of god, I’ve escaped Pickton. And I was out there full force when he was around.”
For Gates, the solution to prostitution starts at home. She believes that child abuse laws should be tougher. And society’s attitudes toward prostitution must be more compassionate, she said.
“They should decriminalize the selling of sex and criminalize the buying of sex,” she added. “I don’t want people to look at us like we’re nothing.”