Jen’s Kitchen — Serving Up Sandwiches and Humanity to Survival Sex Workers
On any given night, between 7 PM and 1 AM, Jennifer Allan walks from street corner to street corner in a section of Vancouver, British Columbia known as the Downtown Eastside. She is looking for prostitutes. They are easy to find at this hour, in this place, where drug addiction is common, and addicts will do almost anything for their next fix. But Allan is not seeking sex or drugs or stereotypes. She is reaching out to hurting, hungry people. She carries with her a basket of sandwiches and a heart filled with compassion.
Jennifer Allan is the founder and sole proprietor of Jen’s Kitchen, which she describes to me by phone as “an advocacy, outreach, food-relief program.” She adds, “We work with survival sex workers, single mums, victims of domestic violence, and women getting out of federal and provincial prison.”
The term “survival sex worker” is new to me, so I ask Allan to define it.
“A survival sex worker is any man, woman, or transgender person who sells sex to get their basic needs met for food, rent, groceries, clothes, drugs, or alcohol. They don’t have a choice in the matter. And they don’t have a choice to turn down dates, because they don’t know if their next date is coming in ten minutes or ten hours. They’re the kind of people Robert Pickton killed,” she adds.
I’m clueless, as I haven’t heard anything about the Pickton case from the safety of my home in Iowa City. But the story is a fresh wound for Jennifer Allan and the survival sex workers she has befriended.
Allan explains, “Women went missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for 30 years before the police did anything about it. Only after America’s Most Wanted came and did a story on the missing women twice — in 1997 and 1999 — did the Vancouver police start a Missing Women Task Force. Then in April of 2002, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) arrested Robert Pickton for 26 counts of first degree murder of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He was only convicted of second degree murder in the deaths of six women, because the Canadian courts believe Mr. Pickton didn’t kill all those women on his own.
“The murdered women were drug dependent, and they had next to no money. They slept in really cheap, creepy hotels on Skid Row. That’s why it was so easy for Rob Pickton to convince them to come out to his pig farm and to lure them with drugs and money. He said, ‘I’ll give you $150, and you can do all the cocaine you want.’ And they ended up dead.”
The sorrow and pain in her voice are clear: Survival sex workers don’t deserve to die — or to be forgotten. They are human beings, just like you and me, she seems to be saying.
Jennifer Allan knows this better than most.
“I started Jen’s Kitchen in the fall of 2004. I’m a former survival sex worker, and I saw there weren’t a lot of services at nighttime. There was no place to go get food, other than the WISH [Women's Information Safe House]. Once the doors close at 10:00 at night, there’s no place to go eat. If you’re heroin sick all day long, and you finally get heroin in your system at 11:00 at night, and now you have to turn tricks to eat, there’s no place to go eat.
“Or, if you’re sick with the flu, and you decide to finally get out of bed, because you can actually walk without puking, there’s still no place to go eat. So, at Jen’s Kitchen, we decided to meet that need. We would come out between 7:00 PM and 1:00 in the morning, and we’d feed the women.”
By “we,” it turns out that Allan really means “me.” She was counseled in a business class to always speak as if there are multiple employees in order to sound more successful. But “success,” to Jen Allan, isn’t about how much money she can make or even if she can make money at her business. This is a service, pure and simple.
When I ask Allan if she gets funding support, she candidly tells me, “No. It’s run out of my pocket. We’re an NGO, a non-government organization. We try to bridge any gaps there are. For example, if a woman gets out of prison, and she doesn’t have her ID, we’ll buy her ID for her, such as her birth certificate, her picture ID, her SIN (Social Insurance Number) card, so she can get on social services.”
But what motivates a 31-year-old woman to look out for the basic needs of people whose lifestyle puts them at risk both from the law and from their customers? “How did you get started with Jen’s Kitchen?” I want to know.
“I was trying to do some advocacy with sex workers while at the time being a survival sex worker myself. I had a lot of other organizations say to me, ‘No. You’re a client. Remember your place. Do not advocate; stay put where you are. We’ll let you know your place.’ So I got angry about that. I went home and I thought, You know, Jen, you can be upset about this, or you can get up and prove them wrong. So I got up.
“I always had a passion for feeding people, so I went out and bought some bread and made 12 sandwiches. I went outside in the freezing rain in October and handed out sandwiches and condoms to 12 different women. And then from there, I got business cards and got other people involved. They helped me do brochures. And it just started from there. Then we got known in the media through Union Gospel Missions, Salvation Army, and different organizations that were aware of who we were and felt that we needed more media exposure.”
I’m struck by this young woman’s determination to make the world a brighter place for people who are often scorned, even vilified, by society.
“On an average night, if we were to go out, we serve about 30 women,” she says. And most of the costs come from her own pocket.
What kind of work does she do, I wonder, that affords her the luxury of serving food to 30 women nearly every night? She must make a lot of money, I calculate. Few people I know would consider themselves wealthy enough to feed more than two dozen people every day — or even a couple of times a week.
But, no. Jen Allan is not rich.
“I work part time,” she says. “I work casual for both jobs; so when they call me to come in and fill in, that’s when I go to work. I work for Lookout Emergency Aid Society and YWCA Crabtree Housing.
“Lookout Emergency Aid Society is a homeless shelter in the Downtown Eastside. We specialize in working with mentally ill people who have addiction issues. I’m a shelter resource worker. I sit at the front desk and answer phones. I do files on the computer and deal with any crisis calls. And I deal with any crisis as I walk in the door. Basically, I help our clients and advocate on their behalf to get housing, to get social services, to get a job.”
And her other job? Perhaps that’s the source of her funding. But no, this, too, is a social service position — and part time at that.
“At YWCA Crabtree Housing, I’m a housing support relief worker. I work with women who are addicted to drugs and alcohol and who are pregnant or have addicted babies. Basically, I do the same thing: help them find housing, help them deal with stresses. Some of these women don’t know how to take care of their babies, so you have to teach them how. The other day, we had a new woman move in, and she had a 2 ½ month old boy, so I mopped her floor for her.
“We also offer manicures and pedicures as a stress relief for the women. We just try to help the women get on in life. If they’re pregnant, we try to help them get off drugs and alcohol and have a safe pregnancy for the baby’s sake. Or, if their baby is drug- or alcohol-addicted, we help them learn how to raise their baby and learn what it’s like to take care of an addicted child. We also get women whose children have been taken away from them. They stay 18 months and take all the programs that are offered to get their children back through Social Services.”
But they do not provide drug treatment, she says. “We’re a harm-reduction facility, which means we won’t kick you out if you use.”
“Why not?” I want to know. As a member of the uninitiated, my first thought is to get survival sex workers off drugs, so they no longer have the drive of addiction keeping them on the streets.
Allan straightens out my thinking. “If they want to go, then, yes, we refer them. But we don’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to do, because it’s pointless. If the person doesn’t want treatment, and you drop them off there, they’re not going to stick it out or be clean.”
Coming back to the topic of Jen’s Kitchen, Allan explains that it really is her kitchen: “I make the sandwiches in my apartment, and then we go onto the street and hand them out to the women,” she says. “We also recruit women to help us volunteer. We’re 100-percent volunteer based. We recruit other survival sex workers in the community to help us hand out the food and do peer support with women. Also, we get women from North Vancouver or Kitsalano to come with us, and we bridge gaps in the myths about survival sex workers on the Downtown Eastside.
“We bring rich, well-to-do women with us and introduce them to the survival sex workers. We show there’s a humanness to this person. This person is a human being, not a label, not a statistic.”
When asked how Jennifer gets the “rich, well-to-do” women to accompany her to the city’s seediest side, she replies, “I know some through different organizations. There are other organizations such as Linwood House Ministries in the Sunshine Coast. [The founder] has done a lot already, where she’s brought a lot of women from the Downtown Eastside and a lot of rich, well-to-do women together in a house, to break down barriers. And with all the women I meet, I tell them about Jen’s Kitchen, and ask if they can volunteer. Or people see it in the various documentaries that we’ve been in, or on TV, or in the newspaper.”
Jennifer Allan is one of three women featured in the documentary A Safer Sex Trade, which shows Jen’s Kitchen feeding survival sex workers in the Downtown Eastside. Allan appears in the film along with a longtime madam and a working escort. “The sale of sexual services is legal in Canada,” begins the movie’s trailer. “However, to solicit in public, own a brothel, or live off the avails is illegal.” In the trailer, Allan talks frankly about how society turns a blind eye to the very real dangers of being a survival sex worker, while the madam begins a telephone transaction for hundreds of dollars. It’s a sharp contrast between women doing much the same work in vastly different worlds. Allan is featured prominently in the film.
With as much local publicity as her efforts have received, I wonder aloud whether she gets donations.
“I prefer just to have volunteers, because I can’t educate you about the sex trade through money, I can only educate you about the sex trade through time.”
Jennifer Allan also educates men. “I speak at John School, which is where the men who’ve been caught picking up sex workers come and do eight hours in an alternative justice program. They come to John School instead of going to jail and getting a criminal record,” she says.
Because of her work at John Scool, the Vancouver vice unit knows her well — and they are supportive of her work, she tells me. “Every Christmas we do up Christmas gifts for the sex workers, because I know what it’s like to stand outside there and have no Christmas; it’s like Christmas is just another day. And you certainly don’t want to see people who are happy and sharing turkey around the table when you have nothing to eat that day. So we try to make Christmas as special as possible by going and getting Christmas gifts, like makeup and stuff they can use right on the spot.
“Last Christmas, I had spent all my money on food hampers and food, so I contacted the Vancouver vice unit and asked them if they could just go to the dollar store and buy $40 worth of makeup. So they had this beauty campaign, where they donated makeup and shampoos and conditioners, body wash, lotion — we had 1,000 items all together. Then they did it again for Mother’s Day, and they [had a media event] to show that they are trying to bridge gaps for the survival sex trade community. They are going to be doing it again this Christmas, hopefully.”
With Jen’s Kitchen and the Vancouver vice unit assisting the survival sex workers to have safer, healthier lives, I ask Allan if there’s a program to help get the women off the streets.
“Yes,” she responds. “There’s PEERS Vancouver, which stands for Prostitution Empowerment Education Resource Services. They are dedicated to getting men, women, children, and transgender people out of the sex trade and the drug trade. The people who work there are all former sex workers. They have worked as escorts or worked on the street corner.”
“If it’s not too personal, how did you get out of the sex trade and into a life that’s safer?” I ask.
“I got attacked by a pimp, and I basically decided that was enough for me. I’ve had enough. It’s not a glamorous lifestyle. And it’s not working for me…. In the Downtown Eastside, I think you have a 70% chance of having a bad date each time you go to work.… A lot of the women who work in the survival sex trade have post-traumatic stress disorder. There are studies in Canada proving that it’s just as bad as someone who came back from Afghanistan.
“If a woman got raped or beat up by her partner or a john, she can get 12 free counseling sessions in Canada’s health care system. But that’s about it; I actually was looking into getting women long-term counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, panic disorder, bipolar, multiple personality disorder — the different disorders you get from long term being in the sex trade.
“The survival sex trade is not a Pretty Woman movie; if anything, women get beat up and raped on a regular basis. People who have been in the survival sex trade and have trauma to deal with need to get hooked up with counselors as soon as possible.
“Recovering from the sex trade is the same as recovering from the drug trade. You have to view it as an addiction; you get addicted to the money, because it’s so easy to make such good money. It’s something you have to work on. That’s why they have Sex Workers Anonymous.”
Most of the clients Jen’s Kitchen serves are women and transgender people, Allan tells me. “They range in age from 19 to 60. But mainly, they’re around my age, in their early 30s. For every one sex worker that comes off the street, there are ten to take her place.”
When I ask if there are more survival sex workers due to the bad economy, I’m surprised by Allan’s answer, once again demonstrating my limited understanding.
“I find, when you’re poor, you wouldn’t know if the economy is bad. It’s just what someone told you,” Allan says. “Every day you have to get up and deal with the same crisis. You have to find clean clothes to wear. You’ve got to find a hotel to sleep in. You’ve got to find food to put in your stomach. You’ve got to find money for drugs and alcohol. If you deal with that crisis every day for however many years you’ve been doing that, every day is a bad economy day.”
NOTE: For more information or to make a donation, contact Jen Allan:
JEN’S KITCHEN Food Relief Program For Women
(604) 215-0026 firstname.lastname@example.org
*Donations of food and/or financial contributions are gratefully accepted
Supported in kind by:
* DTES Neighbourhood Safety Office
* Union Gospel Mission