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Reaching Out Online

A Toronto ministry to people in the sex trade takes its work off the street and onto the computer.

Doing ministry in new ways is an act of faith.

And when the staff and volunteers at ARISE Ministry moved its outreach to people in the sex trade from street-level to online, they wondered if the switch would bear fruit.

“It’s very clear that the sex trade has shifted to online,” says Rev. Deb Stanbury, founder and executive director of ARISE. “We’ve known that for a while but didn’t know how to engage it. Now we have the tools in place to do that, and we’re seeing how effective it is.”

That “tool” is an app that combs the internet for ads placed within a specified radius, and can be filtered for age, gender, and when the ad appeared. A text message is then composed and sent to the numbers in the ads, en masse.

“Every time we reach out, we’re reaching out to new numbers,” continues Stanbury. “So say we send a message out to 40 contacts. Those aren’t the same 40 contacts from a few days ago. We’ve been doing this now for nearly 18 months, reaching out to about 80 people a week with two outreach times. That’s a lot of people. And not everybody reaches back, but that’s the case on the streets as well.”

Founded in 2013, ARISE empowers individuals involved in the sex trade to reclaim their lives. Through twice-weekly outreach, case management and spiritual care, hope becomes a possibility for people who have been exploited.

During street-level outreach, teams of two used to walk the streets of downtown Toronto from 11:30 p.m. until about 2:00 a.m., chatting with people they saw on their route, offering a
listening ear, sharing office hours, and handing out cloth bags filled with things like emergency numbers, hand sanitizer, condoms, chapstick, gloves in the winter and a bit of chocolate.

“Moving from that type of outreach relationship to a case management relationship would take several weeks at least on the street, and that’s on the low end,” says Stanbury. “Through the app, it can be almost immediate. It can be someone saying yes, I need groceries and a listening ear, and we schedule a case management appointment for the next day. It can happen so quickly. There are things we can offer in an immediate way, like links for housing or job searches. You’re not necessarily able to do that standing on a street corner at 1:00 in the morning with your cell phone.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders provided the context to dive into the conversation of using technology to do outreach in more intentional ways. In January 2021, after many conversations with people who have used the app and with those with lived experience in the sex trade, a group of ARISE staff and volunteers gathered over video chat, prayed together, and sent outreach messages to 25 numbers.

Then they waited.

Sometimes the responses come in right away; other times, it can take an hour. Or not until 3:00 that morning. But someone will always respond, and, if needed, a case worker is assigned for ongoing work. That first night they provided a listening ear, grocery gift cards and workbooks. Today, they usually send out 40 messages, with a response rate of about 25 percent. The anonymity and privacy of texting encourages people to respond.

The ads also enable staff to see where the worker has been – people often travel (or are trafficked) to various cities, and this gives them an idea of the types of support they may need. Arriving in a new place may mean workers have few connections and need housing or shelter, food, and be made aware of other resources they can access.

“Ninety-nine percent of them have a bad relationship with police or the court system. So we have to show them we’re here, we’re consistent, and can help get what they need,” says Stanbury.

The anonymity of text messages makes it easier for people to respond.

Emotional support

The majority of people they work with are women, but the LGBTQ community also reaches out, as do men.

Is it different talking with a male in the industry? Yes and no. Many of the concerns are the same – housing, groceries, court help. But one thing seems to be even more greatly needed, and that’s emotional support. “Men simply often don’t have it, especially if they don’t have a partner,” says Stephanie Blasioli, a case worker at ARISE. “And if they don’t have a female partner, it can be harder to open up. So hearing their emotions is important. They often feel lonely and like they don’t have anyone, and have no family or have strained relationships.”

Helping to repair those relationships, as well as talking about boundaries, stigma and discrimination, safety, and judging and shaming are all common topics.

“Once you gain their trust, they open up and are very loving and sweet,” says Blasioli.

Building relationships

Talking online is more discreet than in-person, with people on the street possibly being watched by their pimp or tattled on by a fellow worker. If need be, apps can quickly and easily be deleted, and even if a phone is lost or is being monitored, they can reach out on a new phone or that of a friend’s.

“There really has been trust established with a number of people we’ve reached out to,” says caseworker Alicia Yeager. “There’s one woman, let’s call her Rose, a trans woman, from Hong Kong. She’s being trafficked. We connected with her, and it took us a year to meet in person. We eventually convinced Rose to meet with a police officer I know who could help her. That wouldn’t have happened with street outreach. Or it would have taken way longer.”

If part of the purpose is to connect people with resources, with help, with support and to try to build on that, then it’s undeniable with this app. This is meeting that outcome in a way that street-level outreach wasn’t.

“I’m not one to focus on numbers, but you do need some understanding of what’s behind the intent of outreach and how outreach is meeting that intent,” says Stanbury. “Sometimes it’s just about connection and relief. And that’s an end in itself. And that’s great. But if part of the purpose is to connect people with resources, with help, with support and to try to build on that, then it’s undeniable with this app. This is meeting that outcome in a way that street-level outreach wasn’t.”

Stanbury mentioned that street-level does have other advantages, particularly when it comes to swaying donors, or helping volunteers to feel engaged in a meaningful way. “But when looking at the stories we hear and the stats we see through the app, and how it’s meeting needs, it’s a really exciting way forward.”

Finding their voice

There’s a conversation happening in the sex trade and among the organizations that offer outreach and advocacy. It centres around people in the industry freely choosing this path as an empowered decision. One side of the debate says that sex work is a valid career path, where a person can make a lot of money and feel good about their work. In this argument, sex work is considered one of the “caring professions.” The opposing side argues that the industry is inherently exploitative, making empowerment impossible.

“We’ve connected with both sides through this platform,” says Stanbury. “We have people who are trying to leave their trafficker, or are being trafficked by someone who is manipulative, has drugged them, and they’re trying to escape. They have concerns about how they communicate with us, and are often changing their number. And then there are people we’ve connected with, who, for them, this is a choice that they’ve made. They are not being trafficked, they feel fairly empowered.”

However, says Stanbury, most also recognize that the industry is changing. And while there are aspects they may find empowering, the way things change as they get older is not so positive. “There’s a bit of a window, in terms of an age window, of how long they can do this. There’s no backup plan! No pension plan. The money can feel good for a time, or be profitable for a time, until it isn’t. And then what? That’s the challenge,” says Stanbury.

Staying open to someone’s lived reality – no matter how they choose to view it – is key.

“ARISE is about people coming to find their voice, then claiming and sharing their story. It’s also about recognizing that at different points on our journey, we see that story in different ways,” says Stanbury. “We see it one way when we’re right in it, and another way once we’re removed from it. And there’s a rationalization that has to happen when you’re in the midst of it. That doesn’t mean it’s not true or truthful of how that person feels in the moment. But it’s also a survival strategy; what gets you through the night.”

Stanbury says that if someone is working with a trafficker or being exploited, the lies they’re told are strikingly similar to those mentioned in the empowerment camp. “‘This is fun, this is empowering, we’ll just do it for a little while, look how much money we’re making, we’re in this together, nobody’s being exploited.’ These are the lies they’re told to believe. And some people start to see some of the cracks in that, as time goes on, and as time goes a little further, they say, ‘this is really not right.’ They start to question. And it could be that the same person who feels really empowered today and feels this is a choice, in five years’ time, they’re saying the opposite.

Or, when they try to leave, they realize how much it’s not a choice.

“We certainly want to honour each person’s story. That’s what we do at ARISE; we meet each person where they’re at in the moment. But we also need to recognize that we need a space to examine the story. And sometimes that can be a challenge in terms of some of the ways we look at it, or in terms of the polarities,” she says.

These polarities can make it difficult for someone coming to terms with their own voice. “They’ll think, ‘I don’t think I’m being trafficked, but this doesn’t feel empowering to me, so where do I fit?’ If you have an organization that’s pro sex-worker, and another organization that only works with people who say I’m being exploited, well, sometimes people don’t even know. They’re simply saying, ‘I’m in the sex trade and I need support.’

“So there’s the danger of people falling through the cracks when we side ourselves too heavily in these camps. But the ways we care about people, the ways we serve people and approach people, I think that’s the more important piece.”


  • Amy MacLachlan

    Amy is a freelance writer, communicator and former CC Features Editor. She has a degree in Journalism and 13 years’ experience at the Presbyterian Record. Amy highlights stories about community-building, families and personal faith, along with bigger, in-the-news issues that challenge, teach and inspire. She lives west of Toronto with her two daughters and three guinea pigs.

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