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More Than Sandwiches and Tea

By Daniel Girard
Toronto Star Western Canada Bureau

VANCOUVER - A FORMER Greek restaurant reached by walking down garbage-strewn stairs in a dank alley is hardly the place to expect an oasis.

But this is Vancouver's downtown east side. The unusual is often commonplace here.

Grandma's House is a refuge for prostitutes. Opened in early 1997, it's a place women can come to temporarily escape the maelstrom of selling sex on the streets.

It's open several nights a week from mid-evening to early morning, unlike other drop-in centres that typically keep more traditional office hours.

``It's important to have a place to turn to at night,'' says Barbara Parker, a self-described longtime junkie and grandmother of two working the street a block from Grandma's House. ``There are a lot of women in need.''

In a setting reminiscent of a 1970s basement rec room, women can make themselves a sandwich or cup of tea, chat, read a book or sit on couches and watch television. Condoms and clothes are readily available as are advice, referral services and ``bad date'' lists, describing violent johns.

``It helps reduce the stress of the trials and tribulations of everyday existence,'' says Jamie Lee Hamilton, founder and executive director of Grandma's House.

A 40-something former prostitute with a motherly disposition, Hamilton ran unsuccessfully for Vancouver city council in 1996. She has become the pre-eminent voice for sex trade workers here, speaking out for their safety and leading protests to have violence against them taken more seriously.

The centre's name is intended to conjure up ``feelings of warmth and caring'' among the women who visit, Hamilton says.

``For many, they did not have a good relationship with their mother or father. But everyone liked their grandma. It brings them back to happier times.''

A framed picture of Hamilton's own grandmother hangs near the fireplace.

But Grandma's House is not just about tea and sandwiches. With a $35,000-a-year budget - $31,000 from the city and province with the rest from donations and other fundraising - it also arranges weekly visits from street nurses and offers computer training as well as Sunday drives in the country.

Its most high-profile and controversial program has been the issuing of cellular phones to prostitutes, who face the spectre of a serial killer following the disappearance of more than 20 women since 1995. The units are out of service but still able to call 911.

The privately funded initiative began after Hamilton lamented the lack of safety programs for women on the street.

Hamilton is also hoping to get funding to start providing alternative career training to prostitutes, who are often unable to fit into a traditional program because of the hours they keep.

Grandma's House is extremely important to the women and east Vancouver, says Cindy Chan Piper, an area resident who has fought street prostitution for more than a decade. ``These women, like the communities, are victims. ``If you treat them like people, like human beings, then maybe they'll treat themselves more humanely.''

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Updated: August 21, 2016