Programming Connection

Shift 

HIV Community Link
Calgary, Alberta
2011

How Does the Program Work?

Location

Shift operates out of HIV Community Link where its drop-in, practical assistance, counselling and case management services take place. Shift’s other services take place online, on the street and at locations relevant to advocacy efforts including post secondary institutions, prisons, treatment centres and other organizations working with sex workers.

Participant Recruitment and Engagement

Shift serves any current or former sex worker based in Calgary. To engage clients from different areas of sex work, Shift uses a variety of recruitment methods, though the majority of clients are referred by other clients through word of mouth. In all of its outreach efforts, Shift stresses its rights-based approach: that clients are in complete control of the services they wish to receive.

Importantly, Shift further builds trust within the sex worker community by establishing itself as a leader in the education of other service providers and the general population on the continuum of sex work and the stigma faced by sex workers. 

Street-level Outreach

Shift engages sex workers through street-level outreach, which it conducts in partnership with other social service organizations in Calgary who have established mobile harm-reduction outreach programs. Two nights per week, Shift staff ride along with other organizations in their mobile units to provide sex workers with safer sex supplies, harm reduction supplies, referrals and support.

This partnership is very beneficial to all organizations involved as it shares the workload and builds on the expertise of the various organizations, better supporting all individuals accessing outreach services through the mobile units. Shift also uses this opportunity to engage sex workers to utilize their other services.

Online Outreach

Online outreach is critical to reaching indoor and outdoor sex workers in Calgary. Shift promotes services in various ways online including: the HIV Community Link and Shift websites, a blog, a YouTube channel, online advertisements on sex work-related websites and forums accessed by individuals engaged in sex work. Shift has branded itself apart from HIV Community Link to reduce any sense of stigma that may arise through the association of HIV with sex work, an association which has made sex workers reluctant to access Shift services in the past. 

Shift’s blog is used to disseminate information to indoor sex workers who spend much of their time online and promote Shift’s other services that might be of interest. The key to engaging sex workers through the blog and other web formats is keeping the content fresh. Shift staff post on the blog at least once a month and choose content based on specific questions or concerns, which they learn about through clients accessing outreach and drop-in services. Examples of topics include strategies to help sex workers screen customers and information on how and where to access nutritional services in the city, among other topics. They also use the blog to advertise certain Shift services, such as Shift’s Peer Gatherings (social/support groups). 

Shift advertises its services on website forums used by current and former sex workers for discussing their experiences with sex work, their health and their safety. While this has proven to be an effective method of engaging sex workers in Shift’s services, this required flexibility and patience by Shift staff: moderators of these online forums are often sceptical of social service providers and may anticipate that a service is exit-oriented or that the service providers approach the work from a victim/rescuer perspective.

Because of this, it takes time, consistent messaging and ongoing attempts for Shift to clarify its purpose with moderators and gain permission to post advertisements in online forums.

Shift found that posting pro-sex work materials and resources, such as the XXX guide and the Dope Guide (see the CATIE Ordering Centre link in Other Useful Resources), borrowed from Stella with the organization’s consent helped sex workers understand that Shift was not attempting to judge sex workers but to provide support. Once sex workers began accessing Shift’s services, Shift was able to engage some of them in posting messages its blog, which further built trust.

In 2009, Shift staff had over 1700 contacts with sex workers in the community. They also reported serving 92 sex workers directly (as clients) Of these, sex workers included women (83%), men (12%) and trans people (5%). The majority of the clients recruited were Caucasian (66%), but some (17%) were Aboriginal.

Support Services

Shift offers a variety of support services to its clients. No one service is responsible for meeting the program’s key objectives. Rather, clients are supported and objectives are met through a combination of the services offered on-site and during outreach.

At HIV Community Link, clients have access to case management, counselling and peer support services, as well as practical assistance services including access to a washing machine, a fully-functioning kitchen and a safe space to relax in. At the centre, sex workers can also confidentially access free safer sex information and supplies, harm reduction resources and legal rights brochures. Clients can drop-in or make an appointment to access Shift’s services. While sex workers visit Shift for a variety of reasons, most often clients who engage with Shift beyond outreach services seek support in reaching a goal or managing a legal issue.

Intake and Identifying Goals

When clients first visit to access counselling or case management, a staff member walks them through the intake process to learn more about them and why they have chosen to approach Shift.

Usually, clients have a specific ongoing need they would like to address, in which case they are assigned to a case manager who offers options on how to turn their issue into a goal. Developed in partnership between the case manager and the client, a case management plan is developed. These plans are personalized, structured and realistic. Examples of typical goals include securing housing or a source of income, or resolving a legal matter. The Shift staff works with clients over time to articulate and meet their goals.

To help clients achieve their goals, they can participate in peer-led support groups, which occur as requested and whenever there are enough interested clients. Topics include dealing with self-esteem, communication with friends, family and dates, boundaries, and healthy sexuality.

Sex workers also have the option of accessing support and referrals over the phone or off-site in coffee shops or other neutral locations. This flexibility reduces barriers to accessing Shift services.

Employment Assistance

Shift provides support in job seeking, resume and cover letter writing and interview preparation. They have a computer which clients can use to search for work and print resumes.

Legal assistance

Sex workers sometimes require assistance in dealing with a legal issue that they face. Legal issues most often relate to pardons, child welfare concerns and criminal charges related to sex work. Shift offers referrals to legal services as well as support in understanding legal charges, the law, and the process of dealing with the legal system. A Shift staff member will sometimes accompany a sex worker to court proceedings if needed.

Bad date sheets

Shift publishes a monthly “bad date sheet” to help sex workers document information about dangerous customers and help protect fellow sex workers from them. The sheets are important as they share information about any bad customer behaviour, including sexual or physical violence, threats and refusal of payment. They publish bad date sheets on their website and distribute copies.

Bad date sheets are completed by sex workers, who can report anonymously on the Shift website, through Shift’s 24-hour answering service or directly to staff at Shift or three other Calgary social service organizations that work with street-involved people. If sex workers wish to report crimes to police, the Shift staff will support them to do this, though most are reluctant to do so due to the nature of their work and the treatment of sex workers by some police officers. 

Advocacy

Shift participates in ongoing advocacy activities on an ad-hoc basis to raise awareness and providing sex workers with leadership experience. Activities include: 

  • Giving presentations to various organizations and city police. (See “Shift Promotional Materials” in Program Materials.)
  • Building relationships with local probation officers to change the language used in relation to sex work over time. Due to Shift’s work, probation officers now commonly refer to this work as "sex work," which sex workers have indicated makes them feel respected as individuals.
  • Sending letters to media organizations advocating against the use of language that is degrading and stigmatizing. Shortly after Shift responded to a radio station that had broadcast an ad featuring the word “hooker,” the offensive ad was pulled from the air. For an example of a letter responding to the use of degrading language, please see Program Materials.
  • Celebrations to call public attention to the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (December 17) and the International Sex Workers Rights Day (March 3).