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HIV Community Link

What is the Program?

Shift addresses the needs of women, men and trans people who are or were engaged in sex work. It attempts to create safer working conditions and ultimately improve the quality of life of sex workers.

They accomplish this through a series of interconnected services: online and street-level outreach, practical assistance, case management, and advocacy efforts with police, the media and the public.

Shift approaches its work through a harm reduction framework, which recognizes that abstinence isn’t necessarily the best option for people. Instead proposing strategies to help individuals make safer and healthier choices through a variety of services actually helps improve people’s lives.

Shift also utilizes a rights-based approach, which recognizes the rights of sex workers as workers to be treated with respect and protected from danger and as individuals, who have the right to appropriate health care, housing, safety and security.

The cornerstone of Shift’s work is to support its clients in the articulation and achievement of their own goals, which is accomplished through a combination of the services available through the program’s drop-in centre including: case management, counselling, advocacy, referrals and education for sex workers on harm reduction and human and legal rights in relation to sex work. Shift also publishes monthly “bad date sheets,” which are used to help sex workers share information on potentially dangerous or abusive customers (called “dates”).

Though Shift is not an exit-oriented sex workers’ program (meaning that sex workers are not required to work towards exiting sex work to access services), sex workers served by Shift who wish to exit sex work are provided support to do so.

The self-identified goals of sex workers participating in the program are very diverse and may also include learning life skills such as budgeting, obtaining an escort license, recovering from addictions or managing health. The program uses its interconnected services to serve their diversity of clients.

Harm Reduction and the Continuum of Sexual Exchange

Shift recognizes the Continuum of Sexual Exchange established by the British Columbia Coalition of Experiential Communities (BCCEC).

The Continuum illustrates many of the possible reasons that a person may engage in sex work on a scale, or “continuum”. It helps us understand that sex workers include those people who engage in sex work for pleasure and have complete control over their decision as well as those who are involved in sexual slavery and have no control – and all sex workers between these two extremes.

When providing services to sex workers, it is important to always be aware of the many different reasons each person may have for doing this work and the many different experiences each person may have with the work. Services provided to sex workers must be open to people at all levels on the Continuum without alienating other sex workers at different levels. A sex worker who enjoys her or his work and wishes to continue in the profession must be accommodated to no greater or lesser a degree than a sex worker who desperately wishes to exit the trade.

Continuum of sexual exchange

Why Was the Program Developed?

In Canada, sex work is legal. However, the laws surrounding sex work in Canada make it almost impossible to engage in this type of work legally. As a result, people who participate in sex work in Canada experience a number of challenges to their health, including violence, discrimination, social isolation, poverty and addiction.

In Calgary, as in many other Canadian cities, it is challenging to determine the exact number of people involved in sex work due to the transient and stigmatized nature of the work. Many sex workers do not identify as being involved in the profession; some simply do not consider their exchange of sexual services for money or other services or goods to be sex work.

In 2007, to determine if there were any gaps in the services delivered to sex workers in Calgary, the United Way conducted a research project on sex work in the city. The results from this project indicated that the two existing programs for sex workers in Calgary were exit-based and that many sex workers weren’t accessing either.

When one of two organizations in Calgary offering health and support services to sex workers ceased operations, the United Way asked community service organizations in Calgary to submit proposals for a new program to effectively serve sex workers in the city according to the latest research.

Reviewing the data, HIV Community Link determined that a harm reduction approach was needed to engage sex workers in a program that would improve and maintain their health, providing services to sex workers who chose to remain in sex work as well as to those who were planning to exit. Taking elements from model programs across Canada (particularly ORCHID and the Wish Drop-in Centre in Vancouver as well as Stella in Montreal), AIDS Calgary created Shift.

How Does the Program Work?


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.

Outreach to Indoor Sex Venues: facing the challenge

Given the number of indoor sex workers in Calgary, Shift has attempted to provide services in indoor sex establishments, including massage parlours and escort agencies, but has faced considerable challenges engaging such venues.

To successfully engage businesses, extensive trust-building activities must take place. Shift has mailed letters to relevant business explaining the program but received a very small number of responses. While Shift has partnered with one escort agency to offer condom within an indoor sex establishment, they most effectively conduct outreach with indoor sex workers takes place online (see below).

For more information on a program that has successfully engaged indoor sex establishments, please see the Programming Connection case study on ORCHID.

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. 


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).

Required Resources

Human Resources

Shift employs two full-time staff: a Program Coordinator and a Case Manager. The program is also supported by HIV Community Link’s full-time Outreach Worker who spends part of his weekly hours on Shift outreach. Shift also relies on one volunteer who supports street-level outreach.

Characteristics of staff members and volunteers that contribute to program success:

  • Approachable and non-judgmental; conscious of their own values, prejudices, attitudes, and behaviour, as well as the motivations informing them
  • Able to comfortably communicate all individuals currently or previously involved in sex work
  • Knowledgeable about the safety and health issues common to sex workers
  • Able to validate and focus on the needs of sex workers
  • Aware of other local community organizations, their roles and referral procedures

Material Resources

  • A safe venue that offers a comfortable and private space for counselling, group support programming and drop-in services
  • Safer sex supplies: condoms, dental dams, gloves and lube

Financial Resources

Aside from the cost of hiring staff and maintaining the Calgary Cares Centre, expenses associated with maintaining the program are minimal as the bulk of advertising the program is done by word of mouth. The cost of safer sex supplies is currently around $70 per month.


  • Demeaning societal attitudes towards sex work and the transient nature of the profession make sex workers reluctant to trust service providers.
  • Providing support services to sex workers coming from widely different places on the Continuum of Sexual Exchange can be particularly challenging in a small group setting, necessitating the creative use of alternative means of communication such as social media.
  • Social attitudes that are not supportive of harm reduction in the context of sex work
  • Gaining access to indoor sex work establishments can be difficult
  • Achieving goals and following through on a case management plan can take a great deal of time due to issues of poverty, under-education and lack of alternative employment opportunities faced by most clients accessing Shift services.


Shift assesses many of its successes through the use of a program logic model (see Program Materials for a copy of their logic model). 

A “logic model” is a road map of a program – it communicates what the program is and will do. It outlines what the underlying set of assumptions (or “theory”) are and the links in the chain of reasoning about “what causes what” in relationship to the desired goal. Shift’s logic model outlines all aspects of the program (inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, potential impact, indicators of success and how they will measure success).

Shift is currently compiling information collected in client satisfaction and behaviour surveys as well as the tracking of case notes to report on the above indicators. See the Client Feedback Evaluation Form in Program Materials.

Lessons Learned

  • Respecting that not all sex workers want to or can exit sex work is important in establishing and meeting realistic goals.
  • A harm reduction and human rights-based approach reduces barriers to services.
  • Housing, financial, legal and child welfare services are highly sought by many sex workers.
  • Establishing a safe and confidential space where sex workers can speak freely without being subjected to generalizations about sex workers offers opportunities to connect.
  • Collaborating with local communities helps to generate awareness about sex work, reduce stigma and ultimately promote safer working conditions.

Program Materials

Contact Information

HIV Community Link
#110, 1603 - 10 Avenue SW
Calgary, AB T3C 0J7
(403) 237-8171          

Shift blog: shiftcalgary.blogspot.com
facebook: Shift Calgary