According to a 2016 statistics provided by Statistics Canada, “Unsolved homicides highest for incidents involving victims who are sex workers." The report also notes that homicides involving sex workers are unfortunately less likely to ever be solved.
HOPE Outreach, an outreach group based in Kelowna, British Columbia, hopes to change the conversation on sex worker safety and perhaps help to better those odds.
Part of their solution: a mobile app.
H.O.P.E. is short for “Helping Out People Exploited." Their team of 120 volunteers collects and distributes condoms, shampoo, and harm reduction supplies. They also run a safehouse for women who are looking for recovery treatment or a place where they can go to escape an unsafe situation.
“It’s really hard here to get into treatment,” explains Angie Lohr, founder and president of H.O.P.E. Outreach.
The group also collects and circulates “Bad Date Alerts” with information to help keep sex workers and exploited women safe, and keep law enforcement informed so they might effectively investigate crimes against these groups. H.O.P.E. Outreach volunteers take a description of the “bad date” and circulate it to all relevant agencies in town in the hope that if girls go to these agencies, they will see the alerts. Lohr says the group takes down information on the street from girls they already have a relationship with, providing them with another option besides law enforcement.
“The girls are usually involved in some kind of extra activity that they think they’re going to get in trouble with,” explains Lohr.
Now the app, the product of a collaboration between H.O.P.E. Outreach and YodelME, will potentially provide another means of keeping these women safe.
YodelME contacted Lohr after seeing an article about how H.O.P.E. Outreach had recently expanded their services, and suggested that perhaps their work could also benefit the girls that H.O.P.E. Outreach works with. As part of their partnership, YodelME provides the app, and their monitoring company has stepped up to the plate to offer free monitoring as well.
“What we’ve found is that absolutely everyone we talk to has a very strong opinion about people being beaten and murdered. And that opinion has universally been ‘We have to do something!’,” says Aaron Kilbeck, CEO of YodelMe, in an email exchange with Queens Free Press, “We are ecstatic to think that through Angie and her team’s passion for protecting vulnerable women our app might find its way to save the life of even one human being. And that's regardless of how they make their way in life.”
To use the app, a user downloads the app to their mobile device from the app store, signs in with a password and login, then joins a team or joins individually.
“Basically, then just check in,” explains Lohr, “If you have an appointment from 8-9pm…If you don’t check out, it responds to you with a text.”
If a user doesn’t respond to that text message, it triggers an emergency response. That could mean, for example, that the RCMP is alerted, or the user’s boss is alerted.
Lohr says that users will be assured that all information collected will be kept confidential.
The responses of sex workers, activists and software developers to the app have been mixed.
“Unfortunately, there are still stigmas attached to the sex trade. Some chose to ignore the missing and exploited part of the message and focus on the sex trade when they read about us online or in the news,” says Kilbeck, “We have had people tell us they will not associate with anyone helping sex trade workers. We’re very upfront about the fact that YodelME is not for everybody. We service a distinct minority who we consider an elite minority, and we're just fine with discouraging and weeding out the others right from the beginning.”
Kilbeck says that the majority of the software developers they speak to, the “cyber-artisans,” as he calls them, are looking to make a difference in society and are interested in how they can help do that through the app.
Lohr has also had some people raise questions about the app.
“It’s had a couple of comments of, 'Maybe this app should put people in connection with other supporting agencies',” says Lohr, when asked to describe the responses she has received about the app thus far, “That’s not what the app is for. Most of the women we work with are usually in at least one agency already anyway.”
But Lohr also notes that, “The women themselves are very excited about something else that might protect them,”
Harlot’s Parlour is a global collective for sex workers, academics and supporters. When Queens Free Press contacted the group via Twitter for their thoughts on the app, Douglas Fox, an editor at Harlots Parlour and an activist with The Harlots Collective notes that, “Sex workers are among the most vulnerable workers, marginalised and often isolated. This app provides a lifeline which could save lives.”
Talya De Fay is a sex worker and a global sex worker human rights activist. She is also founder of Scarlett Academy, “…a central resource hub and a gateway to accessing practical sex industry information on increasing the well-being of sex workers.” In addition, she also regularly answers questions on Quora, has been featured in Queens Free Press, and has also published on HuffPost’s “The Blog.”
"The concept is good and the app could be promising,” says De Fay of the app in a Twitter exchange with Queens Free Press, “There definitely is a need to find ways to increase the safety of sex workers while respecting their human rights”
“However, the implementation of this does need careful consideration,” she continues, “Especially around who is perceived to be the contact for check-in or emergencies.”
De Fay notes that this gets complicated because of stigma and laws which tend to discourage sex workers so much that many decide to keep their job secret.
“If it's another sex worker, what happens if they are busy when the emergency alert is triggered?” she asks about potential emergency contacts, “If it is triggered, what is the contact expected to do? They can either go themselves which may help or make the situation worse. The police often can't be trusted, and the Nordic Model law system does not support safety for the person doing sex work.”
De Fay also mentions the potential for the app to be misused by others, such as a government agency or a sex worker’s ex-partner who may have been the contact while the two were dating.
“I would like to see something like this succeed and the safety of those doing sex work increase,” says De Fay, “We will have to wait and see what comes out of the current discussions. However, I think there will be a lot of eyes watching when it does.”
Lola Davina is author of "Thriving in Sex Work: Heartfelt Advice for Staying Sane in the Sex Industry," a self-help book for sex workers.
“The goal of this book is to address well-being in all aspects of our lives, including feeling healthy, financially secure, at peace with ourselves, and connected to loved ones,” explains Davina on her website.
In a conversation with Queens Free Press, she offers some thoughts on how apps like YodelMe’s app can potentially fit into efforts to create those feelings of peace and connectedness.
“I can't give full-throated approval of this app, since it's still in development, and it sounds like it will be significantly limited, at least in the beginning, of helping the most vulnerable people who need it the most,” Davina writes in a Twitter exchange with Queens Free Press.
“Isolation and a lack of a social support network is one of the most critical challenges sex workers--of all genders-- face, especially those who provide in-person services,” she continues, “It's a hopeful development if technology can connect those most vulnerable-- those in rural areas and in highly stigmatized or closeted populations-- to others. If done correctly, the benefits could be enormous, making work conditions safer, and helping sex workers feel better connected to community.”
This app is just the beginning for H.O.P.E. Outreach.
A CTV News article on the app mentions the possibility of “…establishing a neighborhood watch-type group among sex workers for an added level of security.”
“That’s maybe looking down the future,” explains Lohr, when asked to describe those plans to Queens Free Press.
According to Lohr, the plan would involve having organizations which work with these populations join forces, go into the system, and use it to track and support the people they serve.
“You become the support, and track them along the way,” she says.
Lohr intends to start testing the app tomorrow, December 1, with a group of 10-20 women who’ll use the app for awhile.
“I don’t think there should be too many glitches,” she says.