Standing alone in the dark, on the streets, isn’t where any of these women want to be. But despite the circumstances that have put them into the position, their nights, and their lives, are lit up by a few caring souls.
Helping Out People Exploited — H.O.P.E. — Outreach is a volunteer group who have been checking in on Vernon’s sex-trade workers for more than three years now.
Armed with warm clothes, toiletries, treats and harm reduction, the volunteers seek out these women and offer them support.
“It means hope to them, it shows them that they feel like someone cares, that they are seen, that we are here for them,” volunteer team lead Caitlyn Parkinson said.
Dressed in their pink H.O.P.E. sweatshirts, the volunteers offer compassion as well as a safe person to report bad dates to.
“You put on that pink hoodie and you are that light of hope. You are that friendly face that they’ve wanted to see all day,” Parkinson said.
But with limited volunteers, H.O.P.E. is only able to get out about once a week right now.
“It’s just not where we used to be,” said Parkinson of the shift since COVID-19. “My hope is that we can get back out there more nights.
“The need is there.”
In Vernon, volunteers are only seeing about six to eight people a night, men and women, and they are usually the same faces.
But when emergency shelters close following the winter, she knows they will see more people.
It’s a much different situation in Kelowna, where there is also a large number of volunteers out seven nights a week, twice a night.
“On some nights they’re serving 75 people,” Parkinson said.
She credits the low numbers in Vernon to the city’s response to homelessness.
“The City of Vernon has done an exceptional and phenomenal job with housing. We’re not seeing too many on the street, but we still are and the need is still there.”
Anyone who would like to volunteer will receive virtual training and be booked on a shadow shift. Both men and women are needed.
“Right now we only have one active male volunteer.”
Volunteers are given tips and education around harm reduction, as well as proper protective equipment.
“It’s really bringing in that compassion piece to the people we are serving,” Parkinson said.
Men are offered clothing and hygiene products while women are offered the same, as well as jewelry and makeup. Narcan kits, harm reduction and refill kits are also distributed.
While they can serve more, volunteers are only asked for a time requirement of four hours a month — one or two shifts.
Along with being sober, or in a recovery program, and 19 and over, the only requirements are: “You have to be passionate and kind and non-judgmental.”
Volunteer safety is a top priority, but that being said Parkinson said they have never had an issue.
She is hopeful that restrictions can ease soon so that H.O.P.E. can continue with pizza nights, which they had just started offering before the pandemic hit.
“It’s been heartbreaking because we haven’t been able to do that.”
And while they don’t have the manpower to be out on the streets seven days a week, that is H.O.P.E.’s dream.
Anyone interested in volunteering can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250-864-0399.
The outreach group is also in need of warm winter jackets, boots and mitts if anyone has any new or gently used items to donate.
H.O.P.E. is also hosting a stay-at-home gala March 25 featuring five musical guests, a unique cocktail experience with local catering and spirit vendors, deals and wine delivery and prizes for best dressed (slippers and pyjamas included). There is also a silent online auction, with bidding starting March 5. Tickets to the gala are $40, before March 1 at hopeokanagan.com/gala.