Last night I spent the evening with the outreach team of Streetlife, a project run by Safer Wales, to protect young people and adults in Cardiff from prostitution, abuse and sexual exploitation. What their dedicated volunteers do REALLY matters. Here’s why.
My drive to work through Grangetown to the bay is a short, fairly tedious one. I do it on automatic pilot now. This morning, the sky was a riotous kaleidoscope of pinks and oranges that felt unseasonably pretty. And as I drove to my warm office, my 9-5 conformity, with Radio 4 droning in the background, I thought about how different the city looks bathed in daylight.
Last night I experienced an aspect of the city’s nightlife that is hidden to most of us. Every night in Cardiff, as in many other towns and cities, women work the streets, selling their bodies to scrape together a living. I thought about those women heading home as I was heading out to work; a shift swap as the city shifts gears, parallel worlds that don’t naturally collide.
Unless you’re a punter reading this (and if so, feel free to read on), most of us either don’t see these women, or we drive past the odd working girl and perhaps spare a fleeting thought. What’s her story? But it quickly fades away, because you’re onto the next thought (we have an average 60,000 thoughts a day apparently. So there’s not much room for that strange woman you don’t know, shivering on a street corner).
Remember in the dark pre-digital camera days, when you picked up your prints from the development lab, and two pictures had accidentally ended up being combined (double exposure is the fancy term)? Last night, the reality of life on the streets for sex workers (more on that term in this thought-provoking New Statesman article) suddenly appeared on my personal picture of the city I know and love. I discovered that one street I walk along most Sunday mornings to pick up fresh flowers from the market, is a very different place at night. And all of a sudden the city has a new, darker, dimension.
I spent the evening with the outreach team of Streetlife, a unique project run by the charity Safer Wales. The website tells you that it works to change the lives of those involved and affected by sex work; through mentoring, advocacy and access to services. What this means in reality is a friendly face, a cuppa, condoms, health advice, a listening ear; the first step in helping women change their lives (if they can, or are ready).
At a more basic level, it’s about helping keep women safe, in an occupation where they face danger at every turn, on a nightly basis.
Four times a week, the outreach team travels the city’s red light areas in a specially-equipped van, essentially a mobile drop-in centre for sex workers. The women they support know and look out for the van, waving it over for a chat, to top up their condom supplies and grab a cuppa and a chocolate bar. One woman we met last night hadn’t eaten for two days, and gratefully took a food parcel donated by a local church.
The support doesn’t stop there though; project officers (just two for the whole city!) support the women they meet on an ongoing basis. Many of the women have become familiar faces because the outreach work provides an opportunity for trust to be built, and relationships to be developed. The Streetlife van is more than a vehicle; it’s an opportunity to engage with the women, to explore what support they need to help them change their lives, before delivering that support over a longer period of time.
I went out with Mandy, a project officer from Safer Wales, and two brilliant volunteers who give up their time on a regular basis to help make the project possible. Talking to them, I found out why Streetlife matters, and about the women they help. It was an experience that opened my eyes to a world I’ve always been vaguely aware of, but have never paid much attention to. And I woke up this morning feeling different; sad about how dangerous the city’s streets can be for women who have no other option than to sell themselves.
Imagine for just a second a job where every meeting represents a risk that you could get violently beaten, or worse. Where you may or may not get paid, depending on your paymasters’ mood. Because that’s the reality of life on the street, lived in dark corners of unlit industrial estates and strange cars.
The database of women who make their living this way in Cardiff is over 350 strong. On a busy night the Streetlife team will see six to ten women. We were out on a quiet night, and we saw three. It’s a transient, chaotic life where women may manage to get off the street but invariably end up back there. The vast majority of these women are battling drug addictions, and many of them have men they consider “boyfriends” who pimp them out to fund their own habits.
Many experience violence on a regular basis; from a slap or a push from a punter unwilling to pay for services taken, to much worse. One woman we met told us the story of a woman she knows being pushed over, knocking her unconscious and losing all her teeth, on the banks of the Taff just the previous weekend. She didn’t report it to police, and is still working. Another woman had been beaten severely with a baseball bat.
One of the (many) brilliant things the Streetlife team does is circulate a newsletter called ‘Ugly Mugs’. This is basically a rogues’ gallery, containing descriptions of potentially dangerous punters, to make women aware of men who have been reported for previous threatening or violent behaviour. What was depressing was that this is a monthly newsletter, and there are LOTS of them in every edition.
I was shocked to learn the scale and severity of the senseless cruelty inflicted on women at their most vulnerable, all being meted out almost nightly on Cardiff’s streets. And much of it unreported.
Because this mainly happens late at night or in the early hours, we may not see it. Most of us don’t even know what to look for.
Or being brutally honest, we may not really care very much.
But we should care. Why?
Because the women we met last night were no different to any other women. Yes! It’s true! Sex workers are real live actual human women you know!
Fashionably dressed, happy to engage in chat, strong, funny and grateful for a warm drink and a friendly face. The only difference is that their lives have taken a very different path, a path that is easily stumbled down. And once you’re on it, a path that’s very hard to turn back on.
These women are mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, aunties, cousins. Most are victims of abuse. They work not for material gain, but to survive. And that’s a crucial thing to understand about sex work.
Streetlife has conducted research in partnership with Cardiff University on the working practices of the women they help, to help them understand more about how women become involved in prostitution and why they continue to work.
We know that 98% of street-based sex workers are dependent on class A drugs. Many women have been exploited into prostitution from a young age; and when drug dependent they have no other option but sex work to earn the large and accessible amounts of cash needed to fund their addiction.
One woman the team helps is spending £800 a week on a crack habit. When I heard this, I found myself trying to measure that in punters. The team also told me about one woman they help who fell into sex work at 20, and is still working at the age of 60 to fund her heroin addiction. Imagine 40 years in the same job, then try and think what that job involves, night after thankless night.
It’s a cycle that is as difficult to break as the drug dependency sex work more often than not helps fund.
People who argue that street-based sex workers choose their line of work– and should therefore be left to fend for themselves – make me angry. Why? Because nobody chooses to be gripped by addiction. Addiction is complex, and cruel. At its most extreme, it quickly robs you of your looks, your health, and your ability to be a mother or hold down a job.
Dependency limits your ability to DO any “normal” job given the impact drugs have on mental health and wellbeing. Street-based sex work is, in the overwhelming majority of cases, a last resort for desperate, vulnerable women. It’s not a choice. It’s a vocation born out of abuse and exploitation.
And that’s why the work Safer Wales does though the StreelLife project is so important. StreetLife works with Cardiff Council, the NHS and other agencies to offer women opportunities to change and improve their lives. It also works closely with Children’s Services and the Police to protect children from exploitation.
Working in partnership with Cardiff Community Housing Association and with funding from the Welsh Government, it offers supported temporary accommodation for women at risk of exploitation and violence. At the end of a successful temporary lease it also helps women to find permanent long-term accommodation.
Put simply, Streetlife changes lives, and helps vulnerable women at their lowest ebb, making their lives safer and more manageable.
These are women who aren’t served by more mainstream charity projects. They may be the ‘unseen’ but they are not undeserving of our time or attention.
The project relies solely on grants and charitable funding. You can donate here, or by texting SWAL01 to 70070.
If you would like to volunteer, you can get more information here.