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Old Posted Aug 10, 2009, 1:22 PM
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Throwing lifeline to women on street

CELLPHONES are being distributed to some Winnipeg sex-trade workers and homeless women in the hopes that being able to call 911 will keep them safe from the violence they encounter almost daily.

The program is run by Sage House, a women's drop-in centre in the North End. Individuals and businesses donated about 60 phones to the centre for the program's launch Friday.

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Sage House program manager Tammy Reimer said an employee, Kathleen Shellrude, came up with the idea after realizing that cellphones can still dial 911 even if the owner isn't paying for a phone plan, as long as the phone is charged.

That means the phones Sage House is handing out can only make emergency calls.

Concern about the safety of Sage House clients has grown recently as a number of women involved in the sex trade have gone missing or been found slain, Reimer said.

But sex-trade workers are targets of other forms of violence almost every day, she said.

"Those are not the ones that hit the front of the paper, but it's an ongoing part of their lives," she said, explaining johns often sexually or physically abuse the women.

"We've had numerous stabbings," she said.

In some cases, women have reported being thrown out of moving vehicles or jumping out because they fear for their safety.

Cheryl, a former sex-trade worker who asked that her last name not be published, shuddered as she recalled an incident a few years ago when a man and a woman in a car beckoned her over.

"When I approached the vehicle, they Maced me," she recalled. Some bystanders came to her aid and scared the couple away.

Cheryl didn't have a cellphone at the time, but later bought one -- though she said most street-involved women can't afford a phone.

Always having her cellphone when she was working -- tucked under her shirt and secured in place by her bra strap -- made her feel safer, she explained.

Reimer admitted the cellphone project is not an ultimate solution to helping the city's most vulnerable women.

"We talk a lot about the North End and how unsafe it is," Reimer explained. "It's not North End men perpetrating this violence, it's men from the suburbs."

"(A cellphone) is a part of keeping the women safe, but it is not stopping the men who are driving into the North End and perpetrating violence."

Shellrude was at Sage House on Friday to help hand out the phones.

By 2 p.m., about 10 women had dropped by to pick up their new cellphones and chargers, bundled together inside a plastic bag.

Shellrude smiled as she recalled the comment from one woman, who told her "this could save my life one day."
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