The housing trap
The lack of safe, stable housing is second only to drug abuse as a barrier to leaving prostitution behind, a new study has found. Jess McCabe investigates.
Helen was only 13 when her life started to go off the rails. Her boyfriend was convicted of murder and sent to prison for life, then, two years later, she was brutally raped - an event that sent her life spiralling out of control.
Speaking 20 years later, Helen says plainly: ‘My life has been mad.’ It is a story of drug and alcohol addiction, which left her involved in street prostitution to pay for drugs for herself and her pimps. She was beaten by her partners and her punters, and for four years she was in and out of domestic violence refuges. Despite this, and several attempts at drug treatment, she was still working as a prostitute using the refuges as a base.
Helen has two teenage sons, who live with her mother because social services threatened to take them into care. ‘I got on to heroin and would drink six cans of Tennent’s Super in a morning,’ she says. ‘I was out of my head all the time, self-harming and overdosed a few times. I can’t remember how many times I was in hospital.’
Finally, at the age of 32, Helen overcame her drug habit and left prostitution - a turnaround only made possible with the help of a caseworker from Bromford Support, the support arm of the housing association Bromford Living, where she was referred by her local council’s housing team, and a settled place to live, which was also provided by the local authority.
But Helen is one of the lucky ones. A new report by charity Eaves and researchers at London South Bank University has found that, for women stuck in prostitution, the lack of a safe place to live is the second most common barrier preventing them from leaving sex work.
Eaves and LSBU interviewed 114 women who, like Helen, either wanted to leave or had left prostitution. Eighty-seven of the women interviewed said they had experienced housing problems and homelessness. At the time of the interviews, half were homeless or in unstable accommodation.
To avoid homelessness, some of the women in the study lived with pimps or abusive partners. Some relied on sex work to pay their rent or mortgage, making it hard to stop.
Around a third of the women interviewed worked indoors, which is commonly regarded as less dangerous than working on the street. But more than half of those working indoors said housing was a barrier to leaving prostitution.
As in Helen’s case, the women in the study faced a complex set of barriers both practical and psychological, including a criminal record and lack of training or qualifications that could help them get another job. When Helen talks about what it was like to work as a prostitute, she says she is worried it sounds stupid. ‘Sometimes when you do it [prostitution], it makes you feel a bit wanted,’ she explains. But at the same time she’s clear it was about getting money to support her addictions. ‘I didn’t think about it. It was just a job to me,’ she says.
The catalogue of complex problems the prostitutes interviewed experience are startling. Eighty-three per cent of the women interviewed for the study disclosed current or former ‘problematic’ drug use; 79 per cent had physical or mental health problems; 72 per cent had experienced some form of childhood violence; half had experienced controlling behaviour, including from partners, pimps and relatives; and 32 per cent entered sex work before the age of 18.
With so many hurdles to overcome, experts view housing as crucial to creating an opportunity to escape sex work. Roger Matthews, professor of criminology at LSBU and one of the lead authors of the three-year study, Breaking down the barriers: A study of how women exit prostitution, says: ‘Providing women with short or long-term housing can be quite critical. It’s not that housing in itself makes the change, but it gives you the space to be able to start thinking more “can I make a change?”’
The report by Eaves and LSBU stresses that housing problems exist in conjunction with other problems. ‘Policies about prostitution and services to support women in prostitution should take a multi-agency focus engaging with support that can meet a wide range of needs, including experiences of domestic violence, accommodation, debt, education and training and employability,’ it states.
However, the study makes a number of specific recommendations for housing: in particular, for women to be provided with safe, secure accommodation and support away from red light districts. And, for women who go to prison, help with storing their belongings and finding alternative places to live on release.
Organisations that work with women who want to leave prostitution tell a similar story. ‘Housing is one of the main things we deal with, with the girls. Until they’re in stable accommodation, nothing else seems to change,’ says Anna Mountford, operations manager at A Way Out, an outreach charity in Stockton-on-Tees that works with women and young people in prostitution.
The charity, which works with around 100 women at present, has been able to get some women and girls into local supported housing.
But for many women this isn’t an option. Shannon Harvey, project co-ordinator at charity Against Violence and Abuse, says: ‘Often women are expected [by housing providers] to have everything sorted before they get accommodation, but you can’t get everything sorted if you haven’t even got a safe place to live.’
Housing providers should recognise that people leaving prostitution may need help and support during this transitional process, she adds. In particular, hostels and temporary housing need to be safe for women.
The Chrysalis project in Lambeth, south London, run by homelessness charity St Mungo’s and charity Commonweal, houses and supports women who are involved in street prostitution. Stuart Bakewell, area manager for Lambeth at St Mungo’s, explains that when women arrive, ‘they have housing options - what those housing options are, is crack houses and things’. He adds: ‘It’s not a visible rough sleeping population, but the alternatives for them are incredibly dangerous.’
Chrysalis has a three-stage process - stage one involves staying in one of 16 dedicated beds at the South London Women’s Hostel, where 24-hour support is available. Women then move into a less intensively-supported housing project, before moving into their own flat, where they live independently.
‘We focus on working with the women where they’re at,’ Mr Bakewell emphasises, pointing out that leaving prostitution and ending a drug and alcohol dependency - which often go hand in hand for the women Chrysalis supports - is not a ‘linear’ process, and women may go back to sex work multiple times before leaving for good.
Help of this kind is all too rare. The Chrysalis project is the only dedicated scheme of its kind in the country. Commonweal’s chief executive, Ashley Horsey, says that more generic supported housing projects and shelters will sometimes exclude women if they are known to be sex workers.
‘People are excluded,’ he says, or alternatively they get into housing on a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, basis. ‘The women are still in a very dire place in their lives. They’re not being supported, or if the housing organisation knows about it, then they can’t house them,’ because they are not set up to help people with often complex needs.
However, some experts say specialist ‘exiting’ services are not necessarily the solution for all sex workers. For example, notes Melissa Gira Grant, a writer and activist on sex worker rights, a lack of safe shelter and hostel spaces can be a factor that prompts young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to go into sex work in the first place, to support themselves. Hostels also sometimes discriminate against sex workers, she adds, who rely on prostitution to support their families and are not in a drastic, vulnerable state. ‘We need to build affordable housing,’ she says. ‘Creating more rehabilitation programmes seems to be a little bit of a band aid.’
Sex worker rights activists are keen to stress that housing problems are experienced by many sex workers, not just those desperate to leave prostitution, such as those in the Eaves study, who often have chaotic lives and drug addictions.
Catherine Stephens has worked mostly as a prostitute for 11 years and campaigns for sex worker rights. She agrees that even sex workers who are not in a vulnerable situation experience housing problems such as discrimination from landlords who don’t want to rent to sex workers. This leaves them with a lack of safe places to live. Renting or getting a mortgage is also difficult for someone who has problems proving their income and work history. Sex workers may also face harassment from their neighbours.
Rachel, who didn’t want to use her full name, was one of the women interviewed for the study, and explains that discrimination also makes it hard to move on. ‘As soon as you tell [people] you have an offence on your record, and say it’s a sexual offence, the barriers go up. You never get a chance to explain, it was me who was a victim and I’m no threat.’
It is about a year since Helen gained some stability in her life, thanks to an intensive programme of support and detox from Bromford Living. She now also has a safe home, provided by Northampton Council. ‘I’m taking it a step at a time but I am now talking again to my oldest son and going to the gym,’ she says. ‘I was just existing before - now I want to see what life is about. It’s hard to get used to reality.’
A few months ago, the police got in touch and said that her rapist has been identified through DNA. Nearly 20 years after the attack, she faces giving evidence in court. ‘That’s been hard to deal with,’ she says.
Laura Fenton, her support worker at Bromford, adds: ‘It’s still such early days but she is now getting her head together and needs time to come to terms with what’s happened. The next focus will be to help her sort her living place to be better - a place where her sons can come to stay.’