Sex workers falling through the cracks of COVID-19 response, says Hamilton advocate

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A Hamilton advocacy group has set upan emergency fund to help sex workers who can't work during the COVID-19 pandemic, but don't qualifyfor federal income relief.

TheSex Workers' Action Program Hamilton (SWAP) has handed out $100 to 20 street-based sex workers so far, says executive director Jelena Vermilion. But the need is great, she said, and the money doesn't go very far.

She's calling on the federal government to provide some sort of financial relief for sex workers who don't qualify for the $2,000-a-month emergency response benefit. Many sex workers are criminalized, work on the streets, and can't prove $5,000 in employment income in 2019.

"My intention in contacting you today is to make you aware of this pressing need, and to implore all of you tospeakexplicitlyandto motionin favour of providing financial relief to sex workers and marginalized women," she wrote in a letter to MPs, MPPs and other decision makers.

"In British Columbia, sex workers are explicitly included in their provincial government's $500-per-month rent relief, and their one-time $1,000 payment. Hamilton can do much better."

What attention this letter will get remains to be seen. Matthew Green, NDP MP for Hamilton Centre, read it and supports what Vermilion is saying.

"It's important for Canadians to note that sex work is work," he said. "It's part of an informal economy here. It would also fall under the public health requirements of physical distancing."

Inquiries to the federal ministry of finance were referred toEmployment and Social Development Canada, which hasn'tyet responded about possible plans for reaching sex workers.

Paul Johnson, director of the city's emergency operations centre, says there is emergency money available through the Ontario Works program, which can help for 48 days, or longer if needed.Staff can help people who've never received social assistance navigate the application process.

"For individuals who don't have income, and who may not be able to access some other programs, through Ontario Works, there is the ability for emergency assistance that kicks in almost immediately," he said Thursday.

Sex work is uniquely impacted by the global pandemic, said Vermilion, who is also a sex worker. Much of it relies on physical contact, which is a health and safety risk right now. Sex workers are also commonly from equity-seeking populations, includingpeople who are racialized, migrants or transgender.