Cleaning up the Community

Activist helped start john school and a needle pick-up program

By Michael Rappaport
Prostitutes stroll the streets, johns prowl the neighbourhood and junkies discard needles in the parks of certain communities in Ottawa.

Cheryl Parrott, a pharmacist and community activist helped found a school for johns and a needle pick-up program, in an effort to confront these problems.

Parrott, a slightly built middle-aged woman with demure features, wears faded jeans and a black T-shirt embroidered with a dove and the slogan, “Tools for Peace,” from a campaign that she worked on 15 years ago to aid Nicaragua.

She recounts the events that led her to get involved in combating prostitution.

“Prostitution came virtually overnight and was really bad from ’93 to ’95,” recalls Parrott. She blames the rise in cocaine use for the increase in streetwalkers across Canada in the early 1990s.

“There were prostitutes walking down Wellington at all hours of the day and johns driving by propositioning anyone on the streets,” Parrott says.
The effects on the community were devastating.

“Businesses were hurt. When people have to wade past prostitutes to get into stores they stop going. It hurt the community. People avoided parks because they were littered with used condoms and syringes,” she says.

Parrott and her husband, Vance Fandrey, a carpenter, moved to Ottawa from Saskatchewan in 1975. They bought a century-old wooden-plank house in Hintonburg in 1979 and completely gutted and refurbished it. Together, they transformed a house that Fandrey described as, “not fit for human inhabitation,” into a cozy and quaint home.

Parrott says she was determined not to let streetwalkers and drug addicts destroy her neighbourhood.

Parrott says she learned of a school to reform clients of prostitutes, called johns, from listening to a program on CBC radio. On the show, a former prostitute from San Francisco described how she started a program to deter johns from propositioning prostitutes by showing them the damage prostitution wreaks on neighbourhoods, families and streetwalkers — many of whom are drug addicts. Parrott brought a tape of the show to Crown attorney Andrejs Berzins and Ottawa-Carleton Regional Police inspector Knowlton Roberts and convinced them to help establish a pilot john school program in the summer of 1996. The program was later copied citywide and has also been replicated in many cities across Canada.

The john school was originally an alternative to fines or jail for people charged with soliciting prostitutes. If johns completed the program, charges would be dropped, but the names of participants became part of the public record. The program has since been changed so that first-time offenders are given the option of anonymity and a clean record if they attend the john school.

Classes are held whenever there are about 20 johns caught. The regularity of sessions also depends on the frequency of police sweeps. Each class is six hours and provides hard facts and first-hand accounts on the legal, health, personal, family and community impact of prostitution. Parrott lectures at the john school and coordinates speakers for the classes. She says speakers generally include a former prostitute and someone who has suffered the impacts of prostitution on their family.

“The john school has been a very effective deterrent,” says Ottawa-Carleton Regional Police Sgt. Terry Welsh. “Only one john in about 400 participants has re-offended again since the john school was instituted.”

Centretown resident and activist Angela Ierullo, is a lecturer at the john school and has seen the consequences that prostitution has had on the local community.

“In Centretown we’ve had cases of prostitutes soliciting in front of schools. What sort of message is this sending our kids?”

A few years ago, Ierullo thought legalization was the solution.

“People in suburbs talk about legalizing prostitution, but they don’t know what they are talking about,” she says.

Getting prostitutes off the streets is very difficult for the police, Parrott says.

“When the police sweep in one area, there is often an increase in another area,” Parrott says.

“Prostitutes will go back and forth, but communities need relief.”

She says with prostitution comes an increase in the drug trade and discarded needles.

“The public has a Hollywood-type idea of prostitutes, the reality is much different,” Parrott says. “Most streetwalkers are between 30 to 50 years old, and are drug addicts.”

As part of her ongoing efforts to address the negative impact of prostitution, Parrott has fought for five years to get the city to establish a needle pick-up program.

For years she went around neighbourhood parks in Hintonburg picking up thousands of discarded needles — some found in kids’ sand boxes.

Parrott waged an uphill battle trying to push the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Health Department to establish a program to clean up discarded needles.

“There was a lot of confusion, each jurisdiction claimed that it was not their responsibility,” Parrott says.

The department of health, which already ran a needle exchange program, agreed to start a citywide needle pick up program in April of 1999.

Following a route developed in conjunction with the community, needles are picked up by the region and the date and locations of each syringe found is recorded.

“It’s very rare that we find syringes on the schoolyard anymore. To date, this year, we’ve have found none.” says Dr. John Dorner, principal of St. Anthony’s Elementary School in Centretown.

Jackie Arthur is the needle exchange project officer for the Regional Health Department.

“The program has been highly effective,”Arthur says. “Cheryl’s role has been crucial.”