Life’s a constant battle for the city’s leading advocate for prostitutes. Neighbours want her gone, officials are auditing her books, former allies say she drove them away with her temper and antics. Hamilton fights back by accusing her critics of everything from hating hookers to killing them.
Under fire from former colleagues and new neighbors, the activist accuses her critics of everything from hating prostitutes to killing them.
Saturday March 25, 2000
It is a quaint house that would grace any quiet street. But this street is aptly named Pandora, and behind the calm facade of the house lies a story of prostitutes and john's, frustrated city planners and balking government funders. And, at the centre of it all, an embattled crusader for sex trade workers who, some say, has become her own worst enemy.
The blue-green, shingles-sided abode at 2088 is called Grandma's House, and is meant to be a safe house for prostitutes, tucked in the middle of Grandview-Woodlands, a residential neighborhood these days favored by prostitutes.
Its executive director is Jamie Lee Hamilton, who ran unsuccessfully in the city's last civic election.
Since it moved in the neighborhood January 17th, life hasn't been the same, not for the neighborhood, not for Grandma's House, not for Hamilton. Personally, I've never been so attacked in my life, she said in an interview.
A towering woman with a mellifluous voice, she underwent a sex change as a teenager. Utterly charming in an interview, she is alternately painted as the angel of Hastings Street or a villain, rarely anything in between.
Despite the opposition of residents, despite the denial of a city permit, Grandma's House is staying put, Hamilton says flatly.
That decision to dig in her heels has stirred up such an ugly battle; she claims to wonder whether she will survive it. She points to a flower-covered journal on the coffee table in the safe house and repeats an entry she made there not long ago. I feel I will be murdered, she says with shocking bluntness.
But this is a story full of accusations that leave one gasping. Wayne Leng, a former Grandma's House board member who kept the books for a short time, accuses Hamilton of pocketing grant money, which she denies.
Her counter accusation: Hamilton claims Leng murdered one of Vancouver's missing prostitutes, Sarah de Vries, and possibly others. Leng flatly denies this and so do police.
‘I’M A FIGHTER’
Drawing roughly $29,000 a year in government funding, registered with Revenue Canada as a charity under the euphemistic name “9 to 5 Working Society,” Grandma’s House existed with little trouble for about two years at 1127 East Hastings.
Then last summer, a city inspector paid a visit and found it to be in violation of city regulations. The center would have to move after November. Hamilton went looking for a new site, but says the center was refused a permit to operate at three different locations before she settled on the Pandora Street locale.
Bombarded with letters of protest from the neighbourhood, the city of Vancouver recently denied Grandma’s House a permit to operate in its current location.
During a two-hour interview, Hamilton smiles coyly and says, “No, I won’t move out,” adding, “I’m a fighter. I’ve encountered much adversity.”
She was one of the prostitutes driven out of Vancouver’s west end in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “I vowed from that moment on I would never stand to see myself pushed around based on hate and bigotry.”
This latest saga began in early January when Hamilton showed up on landlord Dennis Tieu’s doorstep, wanting to rent his house at 2088 Pandora. His wife answered the door.
Claiming he is an innocent victim, Tieu now says the would-be renter only mentioned something about being funded by the government to do good works. The details weren’t revealed, he claims.
The next thing he knew, neighbours were screaming at Tieu, who also lives in the area. “They were saying not very nice things.”
He said simply, “I don’t need this.”
Hamilton claims she never hid her mission when renting the house.
Enter Hamilton’s nemesis, Cindy Chan Piper, a freelance city planner and architect who is also president of the Hastings North Community Policing Centre. She describes herself as a prostitute sympathizer and has the credentials to back that claim.
Ten years ago, she chaired an ad hoc committee involving all three levels of government that studied sex-trade issues. In the mid-1990s, she helped a former prostitute set up a group called PACE [Prostitution Alternatives, Counselling and Education] and then helped it try to find a location for a drop-in center for prostitutes. And when Hamilton was first trying to set up Grandma’s House, she tried to assist her in many ways, she said.
Then last fall, when Grandma’s House was being bumped from one location, she offered to provide free architectural services to renovate a building in another part of the city more industrial, less residential.
Now, she is leading the charge against Grandma’s House in its current location, just a few blocks from her own home.
An architect’s showpiece, Piper’s place boasts hardwood floors, fine woodwork. It’s not what you’d expect in neighbourhood teeming with prostitutes.
FEELING OVERRUN: Cindy Chan Piper has become a fierce critic
of Grandma’s House, just blocks from her home. The area teems
with prostitutes and the detritus of their trade---used condoms and
Even at 11:30 a.m. on a weekday, there are four of them standing on “the kiddie stroll” near Grandma’s House. Their faces blank, their sandal-clad feet blue, they shiver in the cold.
As we walk through the neighbourhood, Piper describes how the detritus of their trade, the used condoms and needles—many of them are drug addicts—are left behind on sidewalks and in schoolyards. Piper’s elderly parents, who live three blocks from Grandma’s House, barricade themselves in their house and talk in whispers whenever someone comes to the door.
Minutes of the community policing center meetings carry a steady stream of residents’ reports like this one: “When her neighbour was going out with his family on a Sunday morning, as he pulled out of the driveway, he and his little girls watched a prostitute perform oral sex on a man with his pants down to his ankles in the driveway.”
At Grandma’s House, claims Piper, women regularly perform sex acts behind the house, then run inside to clean up, then run back out to service another customer.
Hamilton declares that scenario preposterous, throwing her head back and laughing. The only service Grandma’s House is providing is outreach counseling, she states. The johns, who use the service of prostitutes, aren’t allowed anywhere near the place. For the moment, even the prostitutes aren’t coming here, says Hamilton, because it hasn’t yet opened as a drop-in center.
“We’re not servicing the women because of the s--- being heaped on us,” said Hamilton.
The city of Vancouver is fed up with the problem of Grandma’s House and it’s controversial founder.
“We’ve spent dozens and dozens of hours trying to find a location for Jamie Lee,” said Paul Teichroeb, chief licensing inspector. “We’ve bent over backwards trying to find her a location.”
Nothing has seemed to work, although not for lack of trying on either the city’s or Hamilton’s part. Either the rent was too high or the location was inappropriate or the neighbours wanted no part of her operation.
Though the city has denied her a permit, Teichroeb admits it could be a long time before she is forced to vacate the premises on Pandora. “We don’t want to be any more confrontational than we have to be,” he said.
As for Hamilton, she is planning to set up a legal defence fund and take the matter all the way to the Supreme Court if she has to.
The battle is bound to get nasty. Hamilton, who has borne the brunt of catcalls and protesters on the front lawn, said she plans to send prostitutes over to demonstrate in front of Piper’s house “so she can know what it is like to be on the receiving end of all this hate.”
She added, “It’s clear to us Cindy is a prostitute hater.”
Citing her credentials, Piper denies this: “I see them as victims and human beings. But that doesn’t mean I want them in a residential neighbourhood.”
For protection, the petite Piper keeps a baseball bat by her front door.
A number of people who have worked closely with Jamie Lee Hamilton argue that the real issue is not the worthiness of Grandma’s House or whether it is in the right location, but whether its controversial founder should remain in charge.
Former Grandma’s House board members, a former employee and a prostitute spoke to The Vancouver Sun, some on condition of anonymity. All were involved with the center in its former location on Hastings, where it operated until the end of November.
There is a pattern to their stories: ‘They left after a brief stay, disillusioned with Hamilton, who they describe as a charismatic but manipulative women quick to berate real or perceived enemies in public.
In a long interview, Hamilton dealt toughly with each one of the defections, usually by attacking each person with the same or greater vitriol that they had heaped on her. Then she became emotional.
“I come from the street. I’m articulate, but I react with emotion. I don’t think that’s wrong. I guess I have to be judged and I will be,” she blurted out tearfully. “If it was wrong to change my gender, if it was wrong to expose (former board member) Wayne Leng, this is what I get? But does it mean prostitutes will go away? Am I going to go away? No. I’ll have to be taken away in a body bag.”
Count prostitute Dannette Sanders among her detractors. She lasted all of one month on Grandma’s House board of directors. She and Hamilton locked horns over arrangements for a television interview.
Sanders now says the center was often closed when it should have been open. About the only thing Hamilton cared about was media interviews and “self-glorification,” she said in an interview. As for Grandma’s House, “a lot of women wouldn’t utilize it.”
But Hamilton dismisses Sanders as someone who is unreliable and given to fits of anger.
Another former board member, this one firmly middleclass, says she left over concerns that Hamilton was failing to provide promised programs. She considers Hamilton a person who lacks the normal range of emotions, quick to veer from charming to attack mode.
“She had a hard time accepting direction from the board of directors,” said the former ally, who asked not to be identified. “For Jamie, self-promotion is what it is all about.”
Alexis Kennedy, daughter of city councilor Lynne Kennedy, is another person who sat briefly on the board. She left after about one year, mainly to pursue studies and motherhood, but also partly because of misgivings.
“I think Grandma’s House was an excellent idea,” she says, but added that like so many other grassroots organizations of this nature, “one powerful personality wound up upsetting everyone around them.”
Hamilton retorts that Kennedy used the center to complete a university thesis on sex-trade workers and then left.
“She didn’t even give Grandma’s House a copy of her thesis,” Hamilton said bitterly.
But Kennedy said she donated hours of legal work to Grandma’s House, helping it to become a registered charity. And she is hardly surprised to be the target of sharp criticisms by Hamilton. “She is most comfortable with people,” says Kennedy, “when she has a negative spin on them.”
None of the negative spin related so far compares with the accusations hurled between Hamilton and former board member Leng, a self-described unemployed automotive technician.
This is no ordinary he-said, she-said battle.
Yet it has to be told because he is central to the Grandma’s House story. According to both Leng and Hamilton, it was largely on the basis of his accusations that the provincial government halted funding and ordered an audit.
The two met at a meeting at the First United Church aimed at organizing a memorial for prostitutes who went missing from Vancouver’s east side.
It’s a meeting they both lived to regret.
They quickly became inextricably linked, with Hamilton inviting Leng to sit on the board of Grandma’s House and Leng accepting.
In a disagreement that is typical of this story, Leng said he eventually resigned while Hamilton said she forced him out after realizing he was a john.
But back to the beginning. Leng recounts his reasons for signing on: Sarah de Vries was one of Vancouver’s 27 missing prostitutes whose mysterious disappearance made international headlines less than a year ago. She was an HIV-infected drug addict. She was a poster child. She was No.5. Leng loved her.
In an interview, Leng speaks softly. “I wanted to help,” he says, explaining why he got involved with Hamilton in Grandma’s House. “I believed in what she was trying to accomplish.”
Leng served from April 22 to July 27 of last year, not only as a board member but as a signing officer and bookkeeper. He says he began to be troubled that Hamilton used $350 in petty cash for personal needs, drew cash advances totaling $400 without deducting them later from her pay, and made personal calls and calls related to her civic-election campaign on a cell phone that was to be used for Grandma’s House. Leng laid out these allegations in a report submitted at a public meeting of the community policing center.
Hamilton denies any impropriety.
While a grant from the province of $21,000 requires Grandma’s House to provide access to computers and counseling, Leng said Grandma’s House provided no such thing to prostitutes. “There is no counseling and the women are not allowed to touch the computers.”
Because “there are no girls going to Grandma’s House,” Leng said Hamilton falsified daily attendance sheets, including names of people who hadn’t been there.
“Places like Grandma’s House should be there, but they shouldn’t be run by a person like Jamie Lee,” he said.
Hamilton says the services were provided, questioning how Leng would be privy to private counseling, and she added the attendance records were never falsified. There may be some misunderstanding on this latter point, she said, because everyone who came into the house, not just prostitutes, was asked to sign the attendance sheet. The idea, she said, was not to stigmatize prostitutes.
Besides, asserts Hamilton, the man leveling such charges against her is more than untrustworthy. She accuses Wayne Leng of being a murderer, who killed de Vries and maybe other prostitutes as well.
At the end of the day, however, the Vancouver Police place no stock in her story, dismissing Hamilton as someone whose information has led “nowhere,” and calling her accusations the product of “a grudge match.”
Before the controversy swirling around Jamie Lee Hamilton reach full gale force, Grandma's received 21,000 from the provincial ministry of social development and economic security for the 1999-2000 fiscal year.
Ministry spokesman Marisa Adair said that for such a grant to be awarded, there would have been sound evidence that the agency was meeting its objectives.
The purpose is to assist people who face barriers to employment, she said. She repeatedly promised to get back to The Sun with the number of prostitutes who had found alternate employment as a result of Grandma's House and with an update on the funding situation. She never did so.
In January, a private consulting group hired by the provincial government completed an assessment of Grandma's House.
It included endorsements from two other on named agencies, although a third expressed doubts about the program. " there should be a financial reward for whoever discovers what the hell is going on down there. I don't believe it's an effective use of funds," said the third.
The report recommended that Grandma's House rigorously document the outcomes of its programs to all adults in the community about its effectiveness.
The report also includes comments from anonymous participants who said Grandma's House had helped them.
"Just being able to come and help people at Grandma's House is helped me through hard times," said one. " in reorganizing my life. I'm trying to do something decent. . . . "
Hamilton has drawn support from other quarters, including Frank Gilbert, coordinator of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association.
Jamie Lee Hamilton is fighting City Hall to keep Grandma’s
House at its Pandora Street location.
"I'm very supportive of it," said Gilbert. "I know first-hand some good things they have done.”
He said the presence of Grandma's House could reduce prostitution in the community in the long run because it will provide women with a stepping-stone out of it.
As for Hamilton, "I think she has a good wealth of experience. Surely knows what she is talking about," he said. He also described her "as a very determined person who is been through a lot of struggles in her life."
But with a Grandma's House mirrored in so much difficulty, former board members question the wisdom of doling out tax dollars to an agency that they say needs better scrutiny---and the governments are reacting.
The provincial government recently froze funding to Grandma's House and launched an audit of its spending.
The city refuses to budge on its refusal to issue Grandma's House a permit to operate.
And a former Jamie Lee Hamilton ally cast an eye toward the quaint house at 2088 Pandora and sighs.
"A lot of people really wanted to work. It was a little ray of hope.”
Fighting Fire With A Sensational Accusation
Police reject Hamilton’s theory that one of her harshest critics is a murderer.
When Wayne Leng accused his former employer, Jamie Lee Hamilton, of misspending Grandma's House funds, he tallies the alleged crimes in the hundreds of dollars.
When Grandma's House founder Jamie Lee Hamilton responded by accusing Wayne Leng of having killed at least one prostitute, Sarah de Vries, her reasons read like excerpts from a sticky crime novel.
MISSING: Sarah de Vries is one
of the women who has gone missing
from the downtown Eastside
Police were invited to attend an interview with The Sun, where she laid them out, but they declined. That didn't surprise Hamilton. She believes that Leng is a police informant and they aren’t willing to take a hard look at him.
She began by wondering why a man would be so obsessed with the missing women. He has set up a web site, replete with photos and glowing testimonials from and about them. At one point, he went so far as to wear their photos on the back of his jacket.
Hamilton suggested that Leng was a trick gone bad. For de Vries, he was nothing but a john; for him, she was a lover and a friend.
Explaining her suspicions, Hamilton said Leng lives a block away from Vancouver's "uptown" sex stroll frequented by a higher class of prostitutes than the scarred, scabby, drug-addled women who sells sex on the eastside. Yet he chose to associate with those on the eastside "where he would have more power and control."
She said he had an obsession with taking photos of prostitutes. She dug into a folder on the coffee table at Grandma's House and produced several Leng had taken in his apartment of de Vries and prostitute Sylvia Skakum.
She said Leng "doesn't have a background, friends or a job. He has a lot of toys and a nice apartment in a middle-class enclave. My feeling is he's a police informant.
“Places like Grandma’s House should be there, but they shouldn’t be run by a person
like Jamie Lee Hamilton.” Wayne Leng
Leng denies it and Vancouver police wouldn't comment.
She wondered why the police would be so quick to will out Leng publicly as a suspect when she said they had warned the husband of Kathleen McClellan, the mother of one of the missing prostitutes, that she shouldn't be alone with Leng because he could be dangerous.
McClellan, however, said police did no such thing, although she said Detective Lori Shenher, who had been assigned full-time to the investigation, had made a point of mentioning to the couple that Leng "was a person with a past.”
Hamilton wondered why Leng had a gun in his apartment, which de Vries pawned for drug money. Leng confirmed he owned a .22-caliber handgun that he had used for target practice while growing up in Kamloops.
"Everyone wants to own a handgun at some point in their lives," he said, adding he had planned to turn it into police but never got around to it before de Vries pawned it. Police subsequently charged him with a unsafe storage of a firearm.
Then there's the matter of mysterious background music playing on several tapes that Hamilton believes links Leng to the murder.
At one point in his crusade to find a killer of the missing women, Leng set up a 1-800 number, urging anyone with information to call in.
In July 1998, there were 3 pager calls in a row in which an anonymous caller warned that de Vries was dead and Leng would never see her again. Music was playing in the background.
Hamilton said the same music was playing when Leng had left a voice message with a Vancouver television reporter. [the reporter never returned a phone call from The Sun.] She believes Leng made the 3 pager calls himself. She believes Leng was the murderer and the phone calls were just a ruse. But police discount her theories
One thing Hamilton feels sure about: de Vries new her killer. In the early morning of April 14th, 1998, Skakum and de Vries were working on opposite corners facing each other. They were going to do one more trick each, then call it a night. Skakum was picked up by John, driven around the block, then redeposited on her perch after the two agreed to disagree. In those 30 seconds, de Vries had disappeared, forever.
The short a elapse of time, said Hamilton, means she would have climbed into the man's car without hesitating or haggling as prostitutes normally do first.
As Hamilton clicks through the web site set up by Leng http://www.missingpeople.net , she doesn't like what she sees. In some of the photos, she sees fear written all over de Vries' face.
For his part, Leng wondered how he could be accused of murdering prostitutes after all the work he is poured into setting up the web site.
He admitted he had bought “a fair amount of drugs” to feed de Vries’ drug habit while he was having sex with her. But he painted this is an act of altruism. She would get terribly sick without them, he explained. Then, when the sex stopped in 1995, they became good friends, he said.
The night she went missing, he drove her to the Beacon Hotel where she was staying with her boyfriend. From there, she proceeded to get high with Skakum and head out to the street, Leng said.
He was one of the last to see de Vries alive and the first to report her missing to police.
As for his past, he admitted he has been convicted of minor offenses like break-and-entries and a hit-and-run stemming from his youth in Kamloops.
But "I loved Sarah. I didn't kill her," he says.
Constable Anne Drennan, who speaks for city police, says they have had plenty of contact with Hamilton regarding her suspicions and "the information has led us know where." Leng is not a suspect, she said.
Conflict is built into Vancouver's unofficial red light district
Grandview-Woodlands, where Grandma's House sits, is a house divided.
Residents of this Vancouver neighborhood are quick to embrace the notion of a safe house for prostitutes, but not in their backyard. They argue that their's is a residential neighborhood, which it is, although in industrial area looms nearby and no one denies the prostitutes moved into the neighborhood long before Grandma's House.
On a cold Friday night, some of those residents troll the neighborhood, about a dozen people looking to snag john's. Louise spots one. She shouts in his window, would you want this kind of thing happening in front of your children? No? Well, then, f---- off outta here!"
They furiously scribble down license plate numbers to be passed along to the police. In the space of one hour, they have jotted down 100 numbers.
Louise has to admit there is an element of fun in the exercise, a spirit of camaraderie among the prostitution fighters.
She has no patience for do-gooders who claim prostitutes are merely victims, no patience for "these open-minded liberal hypocrites want to sacrifice our children. "
Just who are the real victims in this story?, she hotly demands in an interview. "We are."
Simon Fraser University criminologist John Lowman places the blame for the difficulties surrounding Grandma's House on a "hypocritical and contradictory" set of laws. Under the federal Criminal Code prostitution is legal but soliciting is not.
"With the federal law the way it is, we sweep it around," he said. "We've seen this story over and over again."
In Montreal, residents of a south-centre district are denouncing a pilot project that they fear will turn their neighborhood in a brothel. The project, which replaces the arrests and prosecutions with social work aimed at getting prostitutes off the street, has area residents worried that will draw criminals, drugs, needles and used condoms to the neighborhood.
And Winnipeg is wrestling with the idea of creating a red-light district. As proponents argue such a move would allow the city to implement health and safety standards and keep minors out of the sex trade.
Lowman said the laws are encouraging vigilantism and placing police in an impossible position in trying to control prostitution.
Not everyone living near Grandma's House wants it gone. Perry Bulwer, a 44-year-old law student at the University of British Columbia, notes that historically, Vancouver has dealt with prostitutes by driving them out of one community and into another. He can't see the logic in this approach.
Not that what he sees from the vantage point of his neighborhood apartment is always as pretty as the mountains.
He described girls shooting up, girls who he found passed out in his backyard before the landlord thought to put up a high fence.
He had to call the ambulance a few times because he didn't know if they were dead or alive. Then he was shocked by the callousness of the ambulance attendants who would wake them up and shoo them on their way.
He looks at the girls, some as young as 12 or 14, and thinks, "That could be my daughter."
"We're stumbling in the dark on this issue."