Flying out the front door of a busy red brick apartment block, a dishevelled-looking teen in a white bustier top and black tights darts past jeering young men. They linger around the building’s entrance on this warm Friday evening, taunting her. They shout after her as she jaywalks across Furby Street, slips the straps of a burgundy backpack onto her bare shoulders and wends her way through a back alley toward Ellice Avenue in the West End.
Priscilla Robert and Carrie Blaydon watch through the windshield of their new Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre outreach van, instantly kicking into gear. As Robert steers the black Dodge minivan toward the alley, Blaydon sticks her head out the rolled-down passenger window.
"Hey hun," Blaydon says warmly.
Instead of turning around, the young woman takes off, out of sight.
"They probably just robbed her or took advantage of her in some way," Blaydon mutters.
The girl looks so young, and seems so out of it. They need to find out if she’s OK.
After their own personal experiences being sexually exploited propelled them into outreach work, Robert and Blaydon have spent years earning the trust of vulnerable women, girls and transgender youth on Winnipeg streets and at Ma Mawi’s Honoring the Spirit of Our Little Sisters group home. They’ve built their careers on making the connections that others often don’t. They know what to look for; they call it their "spidey sense."
Now into their first summer driving on overnight patrols Monday through Friday, a team of five Ma Mawi outreach workers focuses on getting face-to-face with those who are most at risk of being sexually exploited. They hand out snacks, harm-reduction kits and hygiene supplies. Their main goal is long term: they want to get to know the people they meet so they can help them before they become victims.
One night this spring, they allowed a Free Press reporter and photographer to ride with them, to see what the public often doesn’t.
Robert keeps a clear sight line on the young woman as she emerges from the back lane and starts banging on the window of a basement apartment on Ellice Avenue. She’s waiting for someone to let her in, but no one answers.
"Gimme a smoke. I’m gonna go," Blaydon says urgently, her manicured fingertips curled around the passenger door handle. Handing her a cigarette, Robert asks, "Are you sure?"
But Blaydon is already heading toward the young woman, clutching the cigarette as a peace offering.
The girl looks scared at first, answers "old enough" when Blaydon asks her age. But as they chat, the teen’s stance softens and she breathes a little easier. "If you see me around," Blaydon tells her when they part ways, "don’t hesitate."
Back in the van, Blaydon reflects on how much of herself she saw in the young woman.
"She said, ‘This is embarrassing, this is embarrassing.’ And I remember that feeling, and I was like, ‘Don’t be embarrassed girl, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about," says Blaydon, who got herself off the streets five years ago and was one of the first to join Ma Mawi’s nightly outreach patrol when it started in November.
"Just the space that she was in, I remember looking like that, too... People are always looking at you and judging you and making you feel like s—-, like you’re bottom of the bowl or something. It’s that stigma, right? But we treat them like they’re humans. No matter where you are in life, you’re human."
Blaydon jots down the girl’s name and location and calls in a description so other outreach workers can keep an eye out for her.
It’s only 6:15 p.m. There’s a long night ahead.
Through their work with Ma Mawi, one of 18 agencies that form the Winnipeg Outreach Network, Robert and Blaydon have seen sexual exploitation skyrocket in the city. They say it’s becoming glamourized among young people who are groomed to believe they’re finding a way out of childhood abuse.
The outreach network co-ordinates the work that’s done by several community groups, including police, to reach people on the streets and combat exploitation. The Winnipeg Police Service’s counter-exploitation unit hasn’t tracked how exploitation in this city compares with other cities in Canada. They acknowledge that the move by predators from the streets to online spaces is a growing problem.
Most of the exploitation starts online, via virtually any social-media app or website that has private messaging. The demand is fuelled by predators who want young teen or pre-teen girls, and there’s an overwhelming overlap between girls in the child-welfare system and those most at risk of being sexually exploited. That means, out of necessity, Robert and Blaydon’s outreach work has expanded beyond tracking down youth who are in care of Ma Mawi’s Little Sisters group home. What they see on the streets can – and does – lead to police investigations and criminal charges.
But they are not police officers. Like some other local outreach agencies, Ma Mawi’s team is made up entirely of women who have been sexually exploited or abused in some way. As much as their experience helps them build trust among at-risk youth, their line of work puts them back in the line of fire. They re-live their own trauma as they try to rescue others — or at least check up on them, like they would their own kids.
"I’ve always been like this. I don’t know how else to be," says Robert, the outreach team leader. She’s been working with sexually exploited youth for 14 years in a professional role that’s almost parental.
"Because what I think is, if that was my daughter, what would I do? And that’s how I approach every situation."
Top 40 radio hits are the night’s soundtrack as Robert navigates north and west, into the neighbourhoods traditionally known for on-street sex work. From far away, Blaydon spots women in the shadows, recognizing them by their walk, calling them by name, adding their names to the outreach list. They’re always on the lookout for johns, taking notice of licence plate numbers for cars that idle in one spot for too long.
Not long ago, certain streets in Winnipeg were known as the "kiddie track," where johns would go to pick up underage girls. That’s where Blaydon started when she was 12, standing at Flora Avenue and King Street. These days, "it’s very rare to see kids on the streets," Robert says.
"The youth are more underground," Blaydon adds, "like online or in the traphouses, out of hotels."
Addiction and exploitation have long gone hand in hand, but the rising rate of methamphetamine use in the city poses even more challenges for outreach workers. Robert says dealing with addicted young people who have mental-health issues can be like "putting 10 puzzles together in one conversation."
"If anyone wants to say there’s no crisis (with) meth, there’s a crisis," Blaydon says.
"Every single kid we know is on meth," Robert adds.
Unlike advocates who have called for secure placements for at-risk youth in response to the crisis, Robert says her team doesn’t believe kids should be "locked up." Instead, they keep showing up in youths’ lives, letting trust build up over time.
"Giving them a sense of belonging, just letting them know that they’re validated and their voices matter and they matter," Blaydon says.
"I also think that contributes to the amount of disclosures that we get," Robert adds. "We get a lot of disclosures (of sexual exploitation and abuse), because they feel comfortable, and sometimes it’s overwhelming." She mentions two recent court cases in Winnipeg that involve several young victims, mainly girls who are in CFS care. "If they didn’t trust us, they wouldn’t give us that information. They’re not going to feel safe."
When the Winnipeg Police Service gets a tip from sexual exploitation outreach workers, "it’s usually enough information to act on," says Sgt. Rick McDougall, head of the police force’s counter-exploitation unit.
"It’s extra eyes and ears on the street," he says. He acknowledges vulnerable people are sometimes more likely to talk to outreach workers than police. There are several local agencies, including police, who do outreach work with exploitation victims, and it’s crucial to cracking down on predators, McDougall says.
The counter-exploitation unit made 197 arrests last year, compared with 154 in 2017. The two most common charges laid were for obtaining sexual services for consideration and sexual assault.
Winnipeg police have found the majority of sexually exploited girls start at age 13. Most victims the counter-exploitation unit encounters are girls between the ages of 13 and 18.
"That’s where the demand is," says McDougall, who has a 14-year-old daughter.
"By protecting all the others, I believe I’m protecting her."
Winnipeg has one of the first police forces in Canada to stop arresting those selling sexual services and focus solely on johns and abusers. Former police chief Devon Clunis made that the force’s policy before federal legislation decriminalized sex work in 2014.
Five years later, the adjustment period isn’t over, McDougall says.
"Something I think I’m constantly battling (is) this public perception that those that are being sexually exploited, that are selling sex services, are there by choice," McDougall says. He says he has never met anyone who chooses to do it.
"Even if some people insist that it is a choice, we often consider it… a constrained choice: a choice between starvation and homelessness or perhaps just trying this temporarily to make some quick money, get some food, get some shelter. But once they enter this type of a lifestyle, they often become very quickly entrenched."
Before the night is over, the outreach workers will have tracked down an AWOL teen in CFS care, scoped out traphouses — run-down residences used for drug deals and other criminal activity — helped an intoxicated woman who’d fallen on the sidewalk (and whom the Bear Clan Patrol later walked home), and arranged a safe ride for a woman who was trying to get home alone in the dark.
Striking up easy conversations, they reached out to people they hadn’t seen in a while and got strangers to open up to them more often than not.
Fresh from that chance run-in with the Bear Clan, Robert passes a young man walking his bike along a North End sidewalk. "Hey, how are you?" she asks him, as if catching up with an old friend. He tells her he’s got a baby on the way, a boy, and he knows he needs to set a good example.
"I like the North End because everybody talks," Robert says later, laughing. "I didn’t know him! I don’t even know his name. That’s how it rolls."
While their co-workers in a separate vehicle handed out supplies to 11 women on the streets, Robert and Blaydon came into contact with nine women. It’s a slower shift than they’re used to, especially in the warmer months. The team has been seeing upwards of 20 women a night, about 500 per month. Funded by the provincial government and an anonymous private donor, the Ma Mawi outreach team is trying to meet demand by hiring additional staff to do outreach patrols on weekends.
Still, every time they stop to help or hand out supplies, they see motorists and passersby carrying on without a glance.
"I think that we only see what we want to see. I think if we’re not aware of it, then we can’t see it," Robert says.
"I remember when I was out here and I was hungry, and I was tired and I was cold," Blaydon says. "You walk the streets and nobody cares, nobody cares. You’re just looking for another fix, so you have to do what you have to do to get that fix to stay awake. It was survival. But with us out here, if we can provide…"
Their work doesn’t stop. They both admit it’s not the kind of job they can turn off at the end of an eight-hour shift. They keep going because they know all too well what it’s like out there. They don’t pretend their outreach efforts don’t take a personal toll.
Robert says they consult with a psychologist who likens their front-line work to touching lava without gloves on.
"So how do we give them that protection to continue doing the work? I have learned how to, kind of, adapt, but I think my family has lost out. I know they have, because a lot of times I’m going home and I’m burnt out," the mother of two says. "Or I’m so triggered from what I’ve heard that day that I’m angry and I’m yelling and I’m thinking in my mind, ‘How could I have changed that? How can I make it better and safer for these kids?’ And I don’t recognize how much I take away from my own."
She says she’s 19, but she doesn’t look it. Standing in darkness on a quiet Selkirk Avenue street corner, a trusting teen approaches the black minivan as it slows down in front of her.
"Are you being safe out here?" Robert asks her, offering her granola bars and juice.
"You should go in a lighted area."
"The hardest part is hearing the stories of how they’re victimized and tortured and tied up and violated and raped and there’s never any justice for the things that have happened to them." - Priscilla Robert
"I know," she says, in a small, upbeat voice. She tells the outreach workers her name, and says she lives nearby.
They don’t tell her this, but Robert and Blaydon are tempted to hover in the area to see how long it takes before someone tries to pick her up. "She looks like a baby," Blaydon observes, knowing that makes her more desirable for predators. Urging her in unison to "stay safe!" Robert and Blaydon drive around the block.
Two minutes later, they pass by that corner again. The girl is gone.
The outreach workers realize they’ll have to head home not knowing what happened to her.
"That’s really not the hardest part," Robert says as she parks the van for the night.
"The hardest part is hearing the stories of how they’re victimized and tortured and tied up and violated and raped and there’s never any justice for the things that have happened to them," she says.
"Yeah, she got picked up, but we made contact with her, so I kind of feel a little bit better because next time I see her out there, I’m going to make contact with her again."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.