Toronto, at the Corner of Parliament
and Winchester. 7:40pm. Sept. 19.
Idid not expect Donna* to look so normal. In fact, she so much resembled the middle-aged woman next door, I wondered if Jan Rothenburger, my
Yonge Street Mission contact for this story, had understood
I wanted to speak with a woman who had worked – and
left – the sex trade.
But there we sat in a Tim Horton’s in Toronto’s Old
Cabbagetown, about to launch into what I feared would be
a very awkward conversation.
There was no need to worry.
Donna, my age almost exactly, has spent the last 30 years
in and out of jail. “Every time you get out, you have nothing and you end up prostituting to get a hotel room for the
night,” she explains.
And when drugs needed to be bought, her body needed
to be sold, mostly to “businessmen on their way to work.
They’re the ones with cash in hand,” she explains.
As she shares her story of colossal pain – and how drugs
seemed to numb it out for years – Donna methodically tears
up the plastic lid from her coffee and sweeps the pieces into
a neat pile. “I need stability. I require it,” she explains as
she describes her days now filled with reading books and
cleaning houses when the opportunity arises.
Although the list of people and circumstances she could
blame for her life thus far is long, Donna will not read from
it. “I take responsibility for my own actions now,” she says.
This is a fierce and tender woman. Life has taught her
to rely only on herself.
Jan Rothenburger holds a fragile, fleeting opportunity
to be trusted. She is a community outreach pastor whose
congregation are the women and girls trapped in this life,
or rebuilding a new one.
“I’m not what people expect a pastor to be. I never dress
up. I smoke. I swear,” says Jan. Donna laughs and says Jan
fits right in. It’s a big compliment.
Donna loves being with her grandchildren, newly, cautiously introduced into her life by a son willing to give her
“This might be the first time I make it,” she says. Donna’s
eyes well up, but they won’t be spilling over on this night.
Pride clearly matters.
Donna tells me she visited a church in Brampton.
“When the pastor found out I was from a halfway house,
he wouldn’t look me in the eyes. It wasn’t welcoming.”
When I ask her what she would like “church people” to
most understand about what she has lived through, she
says, “People are all the same. We are all equal.”
An old, dusty, bent-over man shuffles past our table. This
is a classy Tim Horton’s with a decorative tin-plated ceiling
and nice lighting. He sticks out.
“This guy,” says Donna, nodding her head in his direction,
“I took him to a halfway house. I gave him my sandals. He was
hungry. I gave him a bag of food and I sent him on his way.”
It’s like Matthew 25: 35 (I was hungry…and you fed me)
is being read out loud.
buick of Hope
Late into every Thursday night Jan drives
slowly down Toronto streets, looking for the
girls. Her Buick is hospital, confessional. It
is Santa’s sleigh with outreach bags stitched
from beautiful fabric piled on her car floor.
They are stuffed with Kleenex, wipes, candy,
hand sanitizer, a condom and Jan’s business
card. Some girls ask for a bag in their favourite colour, or to match their outfit.
Jan’s car is also a laser beam that quickly
finds the girls and women I slowly begin to
see, half in the shadows, emerging, dressed
“Most of my relationship building is when they are not
working. This is ‘Hi, how are you? We care about you,’”
explains Jan. “They’re my friends, we hang out. We laugh,
we pray, we tell dirty jokes. Honestly, when I go to regular
church I have a hard time. I like that they are real. I want
to be real.”
This does feel pretty real.
We drive by Regent Park and pull over to speak to
Sarah*, clearly glad to see Jan, but with little time to talk.
“I’ve gotta work. Bye, Jan. I love you,” she says warmly
and pulls away from the window. It’s a very matter-of-fact
meet and greet, as if we were chatting by a water cooler and
Sarah’s meeting was about to begin.
This is not the Toronto I love. It is painful, dark, wrenching.
And Then Pain Fills the Car
Cindy* is standing with a crowd of men on a dark stretch
of George Street. When she recognizes Jan, she comes over
immediately and leans into the window. She wears what
seems to be a housedress that is too big. A stuffed lion peeks
After Dark in Toronto, Winnipeg & Vancouver
“You never give up
* Names have been changed to protect identities.