To look at Angie Lohr, you could never tell this successful businesswoman is a former sex-trade worker who spent a year living as an addict on the streets of Calgary.
Contrary to popular opinion, educated, well-raised, middle-class people do land up on the streets from time to time, she says.
“We’ll save horses, we’ll save dogs, we’ll save anybody in this city, but what we need to save—women on the streets. I’m sure it’s because people really don’t know what’s happening,” she said. “I really don’t think anyone would be this heartless if they knew.”
Lohr is pretty well heartbroken at the moment.
As the head volunteer and founder of HOPE Outreach—a group of volunteers who try to help women living on Kelowna’s streets—she has spent the last few months trying to save a woman from a level of torment that, in fairness, is quite unimaginable for most people.
The woman was recently gang-raped. She reported the lengthy assault to the first person she could trust—the HOPE Outreach volunteers.
Lohr had set up an RCMP liaison and, between herself and the officer, she found a place for this woman to detox for five days as a first step toward recovering from the traumatic experience, while the RCMP launched an investigation.
Due to her addiction, Lohr says the woman, who cannot be named for her own protection, had broken the rules at Alexander Gardner Women and Children’s Safe Centre already when the assault occurred.
Run by NOW Canada, the facility offers the only place for a woman like this to stay. While one can come into AG House drunk or drugged-out, using on site is banned and results in a three- to six-month bar from the facility.
“It’s a policy of most low-barrier shelters that you cannot use on site, recruit on site, or if they are violent, then they will be asked to leave,” explained Liz Talbott, NOW Canada executive director.
“We have children living there and we have to keep the shelter safe for everybody.”
This left only one place for the woman to turn when her five-day detox was over. Inn from the Cold, a program run on a voluntary basis by the church community, provides a space for men and women to stay the night, though accommodations are mixed. Unfortunately, her rapists were staying at the facility at the time so she couldn’t go there either.
As of this week, even this would not be an option as the temporary shelter shut its doors on April 15, not to re-open until next winter.
So when her five-day detox ended, so too did her chance at getting off the streets.
She was sent back out into the cold, back to the sex trade, which meant back to the drugs she needed to cope with providing sex for money.
There she remained for the better part of another month.
She was sexually assaulted again.
Thankfully, a housing and treatment program out of town took her in and she was able to access the detox in order to make that move, after some cajoling to explain she didn’t simply blow the first round of detox.
She is now well into that treatment program and Lohr has found her another community to transition to once she is done.
“This summer is going to be tragic again,” said Lohr, noting the story is only one of a dozen or more she could provide from women living on local streets.
Her volunteers regularly escort women to the lake to bath because they have no other place for them to go. The women worry they will be sexually assaulted if they go down to the lake on their own.
Men who are on the streets in Kelowna can sleep at The Gospel Mission, can then access housing and treatment the Gospel Mission operates, housing and treatment Freedom’s Door runs, the John Howard Society’s housing, Inn from the Cold, and so forth.
For women, the entry-level, straight from the street options are very limited.
“We need an emergency shelter for women only so they don’t have to stand on a street corner,” said Lohr.
The solution is simple, in Lohr’s eyes. Get some base-funding, find a space, a worker and give women in desperate need a place to stay so they don’t have to endure such suffering.
And yet, while she has approached the mayor with the problem and MP Ron Cannan, both politicians facing re-election this year, no one has stepped up to answer her repeated pleas for help.
Cannan, she said, looked most concerned when she told him about it in person, but has not responded to any of her recent emails.
Lohr figures a temporary shelter could be run for as little as $175,000 a year, based on estimates she’s received from friends who run private shelters.
Christine Walsh, drug policy coordinator for the Central Okanagan Regional District, says that cost is more like $700,000.
“This is probably the main reason I’ve been advocating for a sobering centre,” said Walsh, who admits she hasn’t gotten very far.
Walsh says the population Lohr is talking about is extremely small, and that the better use of resources would be to establish a facility where anyone can go to stay for 24 hours, which will guarantee a bed in treatment in the aftermath.
Sobering centres exist in Victoria, one is opening in Surrey, there is one each in Portland and Seattle. But half a decade after recommendations to get one in Kelowna were made, she cannot say the city is any closer to fulfilling the need.
“It’s another financial burden on an over-stretched system and how do you demonstrated that one area is the most in need?” she said.
Walsh says she agrees an “alternative to crack shacks and prisons” is needed, but said, without the right staffing supports in place, she fears any attempt at a temporary shelter would just set women up for further failure. Interior Health is the body which would fund such a scheme and it doesn’t have the money.
In the meantime, Lohr says she’s doing what she can but desperately needs more help.
With Inn From the Cold closing last Friday, there are women on the streets of Kelowna with literally nowhere to go, she said.
The one support she has received assistance from, Kelowna Women’s Resource Centre which offered administrative services as the young non-profit established itself, now has announced it will close its doors for good after years of struggling to find funding.