H.O.P.E. In The Okanagan
There is H.O.P.E. for women in the Okanagan
You & Me BC
April 21st, 2022
H.O.P.E. provides outreach 7 days a week to women in the Okanagan who are experiencing homelessness or exploitation, living in addiction, or participating in sex work.
We talked with H.O.P.E. founder Angie Lohr about how H.O.P.E. started, why women are pushed to the streets, and the stigma around sex work.
Tell us about what H.O.P.E. does
Angie: H.O.P.E. stands for helping out people exploited.
Originally we started doing team outreach on the streets of Kelowna, and in 2017 expanded to Vernon. We hand out all sorts of supplies to women on the streets and in shelters, like shampoo, lip balm, clothes, candy, and condoms.
When the opioid crisis hit Kelowna and Vernon, we also started a Narcan team, which goes out to support men and women in the streets. We do focus on women, but things got so bad up here that we couldn't ignore all the men struggling either.
H.O.P.E. founder Angie Lohr
We also support sex trade workers, and women who have been assaulted or kidnapped. They can file an alert with us, and we send that alert to around 100 agencies who can help locate perpetrators and warn other ladies.
This year we're expanding our services. We've partnered with UBC Okanagan and are creating a cellphone safety app for women, and we're hoping to get into supportive housing initiatives which will include counselling and broader services.
You shouldn't just house people - you need to also address the issues that caused disruptions in their life too.
What motivated you to start this work? Angie: It was my own experience. I was born and raised in Winnipeg, and ended up on the streets struggling with addiction. During that time I also entered sex work to support myself.
Eventually I got on the right track in my recovery journey, and in 2008 I moved to the Okanagan with my husband. Once I was here I went out and had a look through the community with a friend. We talked to the ladies and saw how bad the need for help was.
So with a couple volunteers, we went out and started bringing supplies to the women. It grew from there, and now we have over 100 volunteers on our outreach teams.
What pushes women to the streets? Angie: Poverty, for the most part. Many of these ladies are on disability or have had a setback in their life that makes them unable to afford housing. With the current social assistance rates, you can't even rent a room. Then with the lack of affordability, they also can't get into counselling, they can't get into detox with the costs and waits, and it all adds up.
Taking donations to a shelter (left); the NARCAN team out at night (right)
Has the issue gotten better or worse over the past few years? Angie: We still have about 400 homeless women in the region at a time. It's gotten worse since the pandemic started, and of course since the opioid crisis began, and our staff and frontline workers are exhausted.
Narcan and harm reduction help, but they only do so much, and we have to pick up the pace with other services and housing too. There also must be a shift to goal-oriented solutions, which means focusing on a goal and allowing flexibility in reaching it, rather than focusing on a method and being rigidly fixed to it.
Tell us about Jewels of Hope Angie: We hold regular get-togethers where we invite ladies to come make bracelets with each other. They are based on designs of truth and reconciliation, and the ladies get stipends for each bracelet they make.
We sell them online, with the story of the lady who made them attached. You get to know them on a different level and gain a deeper appreciation for the adversity they have faced in their life.
Jewels of Hope
H.O.P.E. openly supports sex workers - is there still stigma around doing that? Angie: Stigma hugely exists, although it has changed to some extent. Whatever the reason is for ladies being in sex work, they should still be protected. And due to poverty more women have been going into sex work. But they get no workman's comp or benefits, and are vulnerable due to the lack of protection.
Whatever the reason is for ladies being in sex work, they should still be protected
We need to do more to protect the ladies. It's a very controversial issue in my white-driven rich community and people want to bury their heads in sand, but it's not going away, so we need to provide education and make it safer. I also want to add that sex trade workers don't want to be looked at as victims. We know many ladies who make a very good living doing it, and they just want the safeguards and protection that workers in other fields get.
What can someone who isn't in this line of work do to help? Angie: Have an open mind and don't be judgmental. There are stories behind these women. And support agencies that do good things with their money. An example of this is WISH, which opened Canada's first 24/7 shelter for sex trade workers.
Anything to add?
Angie: It's not just our homeless population dying in the overdose crisis. It affects all layers of society, and there's still too much judgement, which prevents open discussions and leads to people silently struggling and unable to get help.
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of You & Me BC. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org