SWAN Vancouver: Filling Critical Gaps to Support our Community’s Most Marginalized

November 9, 2020

During the pandemic, charities and nonprofits have played critical roles to fill gaps in services the public and private sectors are unable to address. Organizations like SWAN Vancouver have made all the difference for many of our community’s most marginalized populations during these challenging times.

SWAN is a charity that works to promote the rights, health, and safety of newcomer, migrant, and immigrant women engaged in indoor sex work through frontline services and advocacy. A grant recipient of both the Community Response Fund and the Emergency Community Support Fund, their work has been essential as the impacts of the pandemic have further exposed and deepened the inequities faced by these women.

“These are women that typically live and work on the margins of society in regular times,” explains Alison Clancey, Executive Director of SWAN. “But criminalization, social isolation, sex work stigma, and fears about their immigration status have all been exacerbated by COVID-19.”

When the pandemic hit, many of SWAN’s clients experienced a sudden and near complete loss of income and were unable to access government financial support or housing subsidies. Working in an informal labour sector and their immigration status often meant they were unable to access these additional supports. The rise in anti-Asian racism (most of SWAN’s clients are women of colour) also contributed to their experiences of isolation.

The pandemic also surfaced new challenges. “Typically the type of housing issues the women face is around tenancy rights,” says Alison. “With drastic reductions in income, it affected their ability to pay rent. It was the first time we heard about housing precarity among the women who access our services.”

Overall, SWAN experienced a dramatic 490% increase in requests for support. While in-person outreach was suspended for six weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, SWAN’s existing online outreach program continued without interruption. Established in 2014, the online outreach program meant SWAN was well-positioned to provide services given the challenges COVID-19 has created for other community-based organizations. They also set up a relief fund, raising over $12,000 to support 55 women who were ineligible for other financial resources.

With grants from Vancouver Foundation, they were also able to hire more peer support workers, purchase and distribute personal protective equipment, and disseminate translated information on topics like workplace health and safety. And to combat isolation, they created the Messages of Hope Board where community members can offer messages of kindness and compassion to the women.

At the start of the pandemic, SWAN’s focus was to address immediate needs—but over time, they realized there needed to be a new host of services. They’re now pivoting to secure and provide mental health supports.

“We’re the only organization in Vancouver that newcomer, migrant, and immigrant women can come and not feel judged because of how they earn their income,” says Alison. “During COVID, all the oppressions they face in society are exacerbated and I think our work is more critical than ever.”

To ensure this vital work can continue, please consider making a donation directly to SWAN Vancouver. You can also donate to the Community Impact Fund to continue supporting communities in BC through this pandemic and other emerging needs and priorities affecting our province. 

Vancouver Foundation is proud to support a diverse group of charities supporting women engaged in sex work and immigrant and migrant communities through the pandemic. This includes organizations like Metro Vancouver Consortium, The Shoe Project, and Vancouver Island Counselling Centre for Immigrants and Refugees Association.

For organizations led by and serving women, girls, Two-Spirit, and gender diverse people, learn more about our latest grant program, the Fund for Gender Equality. Applications close on November 30. For more information, click here.

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