It wasn’t long ago that 25-year-old Alex Lougheed was homeless, doing escort work to survive, addicted to drugs and reaching out for help from Street Outreach Services (SOS), one of the only support centres for youth sex workers living on the streets in Toronto.
With the help of Covenant House, a downtown shelter, and then SOS, he stayed clean for five years. He is no longer doing sex work, something he says he was determined to stop. He got a job and found an apartment.
So, when funding cuts forced SOS to close down in 2011, Lougheed was devastated.
In August, he made the decision to restart SOS on his own. Four months in, he says he has more than 350 clients, mostly sex workers aged 16 to 30. Almost all are gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans identified, and most are homeless.
He offers counselling, safe-sex kits, and HIV and harm-reduction information, and he connects clients to job-skills training and assistance with schooling and housing. Many have experienced discrimination and abuse at the hands of their parents, or within the system; many have been kicked out of their homes or run away.
Lougheed recalls getting a call from a 12-year-old boy forced to do escort work by his own parents, a situation that legally must be reported to authorities. “He just wanted to talk and feel safe because he didn’t have that with his family . . . He’s just a child. It’s heartbreaking,” he says.
Lougheed’s own story is similar to that of many of his clients. Five years ago he fled an abusive home in Collingwood. After doing sex work for two years in Toronto, he reached out for help but found very few stigma-free supports for queer youth sex workers. Then he was referred to SOS.
“I was having some problems with bad dates, and I needed to talk to people,” he says. “They listened and they cared. They were non-judgmental, which is something I needed at the time.”
He remained a client of SOS for three years until it closed its doors.
After serving the community for 26 years, SOS was forced to shut down in May when LOFT Community Services, a service provider supported by provincial funding and private donations, axed its only source of funding.
At the time, LOFT released a statement saying SOS’s services were no longer needed because cellphones and websites have changed sex work and contributed to “a significant decrease in street prostitution by youth.”
That’s not true, Lougheed says. Cellphones and the internet have changed how the sex trade operates, but there are still many youth sex workers working the streets.
“It left a major gap,” he says. “Queer youth have so few supports as it is, so to pull one was frustrating.”
Lougheed, who works two other jobs, now runs the organization solely on donations. “The reason for that is because I don’t want the funding to be pulled again.” He runs it out of his home and uses his cellphone like a 24-hour hotline. Often he meets clients at the Second Cup on Church Street.
His day starts at 7am when he commutes downtown from the west end. His phone rings frequently throughout the day. When not meeting clients, he walks the Village. Sometimes he uses donated money to buy food for homeless youth.
He is trying to raise enough money to open a drop-in space – a warm place for street youth to go have a cup of coffee and a snack and talk.
“We talk about whatever issues they want to talk about. If they need safe-sex kits, we give them condoms, lube. I provide as much advice as I can to support their needs. If I can’t help them, then I will provide a referral to another service.”
No one is turned away, he says.
He says there is an overwhelming need for housing and emergency shelter beds in Toronto. Getting youth off the street should be a top priority for any government, he says.
Recent statistics released by downtown shelters support Lougheed’s call for action. Evergreen Yonge Street Mission, a Toronto charity, helped 811 people find housing in 2011, up from 213 people in 2010. Fourteen youth shelters in the city have a total capacity of 525 beds. But a report from Covenant House estimates that 1,500 to 2,000 youth are homeless on any given night in Toronto. Experts say between 25 and 40 percent of homeless youth are lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans.
If you are a youth who is interested in reaching out to SOS, call 647-760-0125, email firstname.lastname@example.org, find SOS on Facebook, or visit the website, sostoronto.ca.
Lougheed says all donations — cash, canned food, warm clothes, gift cards or even volunteer time — are needed and welcome.