Stop at the red light
A project in Leeds is helping to house the city’s sex workers and turn their lives around. Helen Clifton reports
Working with extremely vulnerable people often means going the extra mile - sometimes quite literally. For Liz Wilson of Shelter’s sex workers advice project in Leeds, West Yorkshire, it sometimes means picking clients up from the gates of New Hall prison in Wakefield and driving them straight to their new home. Otherwise, they may never get there.
‘The first thing they will want to do is buy drugs,’ says Ms Wilson. ‘If they have been in for three weeks, it is not long enough to stop using. Stopping the physical pain of not taking drugs is more important than housing.’
It is the job of Ms Wilson and her colleagues at SWAP, as the project is known, to make housing a priority. The project was set up in 2007 after Shelter noticed a big increase in the number of street workers in Leeds. With £90,000 in annual funding from Comic Relief, the John Paul Getty Foundation and Shelter, it provides housing advice and support to sex workers and those at risk of sexual exploitation.
Since April, it has also run a prison outreach service for those serving sentences of 12 months or less, employing two part-time advocates along with Ms Wilson, who is a full-time prison-based advocate.
SWAP has found homes for more than 150 women who are either at risk of sexual exploitation or are working the streets. A large proportion are under 21, while some have been sex workers for as long as 20 years. Of the 20 women in Ms Wilson’s caseload, 18 are drug users, most self-harm, and a few have severe mental health problems. Many have breached anti-social behaviour orders while some are in prison for petty crime.
‘Quite a few have been evicted or have rent arrears,’ Ms Wilson explains. ‘Most of them have a really chaotic housing history.’
SWAP receives referrals from a range of domestic violence and sex worker projects across West Yorkshire. It also works closely with Leeds Council’s crime reduction initiative.
‘Access to stable and safe housing options is often a vital part of the process of helping women who work in the sex industry,’ says Rob McCartney, housing strategy and commissioning manager at Leeds Council.
A place to stay
Advocates begin by looking for suitable supported housing, usually starting with Bradford-based Horton Housing Association’s substance, tenancy and resettlement services project, which offers housing and support services for single people who are homeless and have substance use issues, or Leeds Housing Concern’s Sinclair project, which also provides secure homes for single homeless drug users. Emergency, direct access accommodation is often provided by the Hollies Hostel, a 31-bed facility for single homeless women with substance misuse problems.
‘The projects we work with are used to our clients,’ Ms Wilson says. ‘There is usually more of a problem around drug or alcohol use than sex working. And if the clients don’t want to disclose their history, they don’t have to.’
One SWAP advocate, Annette Roberts, says the project’s approach is confidential, flexible and tailored to clients’ needs. For example, she says, emergency accommodation is not always a good idea.
‘If clients have managed to get clean, it may be completely the wrong place for them. They may be at risk of getting reintroduced to drugs,’ she says.
Placing clients on the council’s priority extra housing list means they get a suitable home much more quickly. ‘Many factors that affect sex workers could see them placed on this list,’ Ms Wilson says. ‘But it is discretionary. And a lot of things that can give them priority need, they may not want to disclose. But hopefully a lot of the young people do realise they are at risk.’
Some may have specific area requirements or safety concerns, whereas others want to be close to the city’s red light areas of Holbeck and Beeston. ‘But the majority want to move on from sex working, and that is what we try to help them do,’ says Ms Roberts.
Although SWAP prefers clients to move into social housing, it also works with the council’s accredited landlord scheme to place them in privated rented homes.
The next step
After housing its clients, SWAP accompanies them to appointments, and works with them to secure community care grants and ensure they are getting the right benefits. It supports individuals for around six months after they’ve been housed. The prison outreach team, meanwhile, works with clients for three months after they’ve come out of prison.
According to SWAP service manager Sylvia Simpson, a one-on-one approach is crucial - all of the clients who have engaged with SWAP have successfully responded to rehab.
But despite its success, the future of the project is uncertain - Comic Relief’s three-year £75,000 grant runs out this year and how it will meet the shortfall is as yet unclear.
‘It doesn’t bear thinking about what will happen if the project doesn’t continue,’ says Ms Simpson.
‘We are able to build up a close rapport,’ states Ms Roberts, explaining the project’s success.
‘When they get a flat and gain confidence, they move away from that chaotic lifestyle. They have a lot of issues, but we are not there to preach or judge. We are on their side.’
Adele*, 21, from Manchester, has lived in private rented accommodation in Leeds since May. Adele, who left care at the age of 16, became a sex worker in her home city when she was 13, working on the streets and from a flat.
She has now stopped taking heroin and sex working, and is on a methadone detox programme. She was referred to SWAP by the Genesis project; a Leeds-based organisation which supports women involved in prostitution and sexually exploited young people.
Her SWAP advocate is Annette Roberts. ‘Annette attended my appointments with the council,’ says Adele. ‘I got the right amount of housing and council tax benefit, thanks to her. She has also got me on the priority extra housing list, which I’m really happy about.’
Adele is now on the waiting list for a council flat, and expects to be given a new home early next year. ‘When I move into my flat, Annette’s going to help me get some grants for furniture. The service is extremely important. I feel guilty about the things I have done. But I want to put that in the past now and help other people.’
* not her real name