I write this blog as a woman who has been through drug services, homeless GP practices, charities and whatever else, but it isn’t about me. I did a conference recently, speaking about the problems sex workers and more broadly, women experience when engaging in services. I was astounded by the overwhelming positive response, but many messaged to say they were glad someone was finally ‘saying it how it is’ and was brave enough to say what everyone was thinking. I know people are scared to upset their commissioners, but the result can be incredibly damaging for the people you are there to serve and protect.
When I lived in a complex needs hostel, I listened to my new housemate talk about her 6 year old son. He was born on Christmas Eve, and you could tell she was full of both joy and sadness when talking about him. She gave birth to him in a car park. I can’t even think about it because it makes me upset to think of how desperate she was, and how she must have felt to have done that. Can you imagine that? You can’t imagine it because you’ve probably never considered the fact that simply disclosing you’re pregnant could cause you unspeakable trauma by the hands of others and services.
Did my friend love her baby any less than anyone new mother? Absolutely not. I don’t know many women who would go through what she did, trying desperately to keep her child, to not have them removed. Removing a child is perhaps one of the most profoundly traumatic things you can inflict on someone, and pregnant people are well aware of the power a service holds. However, it feels as though most services are more concerned about the unborn foetus than the bearer of the child.
We remove the child and then tell the parent we left behind to get better, but we don’t give them the resources to do so and to add insult to injury, services will say things like ‘if you loved your child, you’d do x, y and z’. If you don’t do it in time, they put the child up for adoption and you won’t see them again, so all your hard work has been for nothing anyway. Instead, they just added to trauma and potential drug misuse problems. I have absolute admiration for the parents have after child removal.
Women with multiple children removed are looked down upon even more. I have listened to both women tell me and professionals say things like ‘why do you keep having more’ or ‘all you’re doing is putting your kid through what you went through’. They vilify the woman who has had 8 children all taken from her and put into care. What they didn’t think is, she kept doing it because she was holding out hope to keep this one, because she wanted something or someone to love, care for and be responsible for. They see it as a good thing that her children have been removed, even if it destroys her mental health. Even if it means she uses more drugs to cope, and therefore has to sex work or rely on abusers for drugs. We don’t support both mother and child until they are able to be united again, instead we quickly adopt because newborns are more desirable and we have already given up hope that the mother will change.
All services love to say that are trauma-informed and person centred, but when that person is forced to engage in your service then this can’t be true. How can you be person-centred if they don’t even want to be there, and if they don’t, you’ll call safeguarding, remove their drug replacement prescription, report their children or write letters to the court calling them non-compliant with treatment? The power dynamics within services are profound, and if you’re engaging in the Family, Drug and Alcohol Court, probation or rely on your service for health, condoms or food then it can’t truly be person-centred. How can it be when they’re too scared to say anything, put a complaint in, argue and stand up for themselves when you hold the paddle?
I relapsed last year, and finally got stable again on my drug treatment in February. I got a job in March as a homeless outreach worker. The very same day, my GP practice called a safeguarding concern stating that I shouldn’t be in that job. The consequences were dire, and I wasn’t informed they were going to do this. I had a mental health crisis, lost my job, returned to sex work, briefly relapsed and it completely shattered my confidence and self-esteem. They tell you to get better, get out of sex work, but when you do, they are the first ones to pull the rug because it hasn’t been done in the way they wanted it to.
Meeting after meeting I sit in about homelessness and I often think, where are the women? Where is the discussion about women, and why are we clumping all homeless issues together when women do not experience it in the same way. Roughly 130,000 children are homeless in the UK, living in temporary accommodation, and alongside those children are their mothers. We tend to gain homeless statistics by street outreach counts and in turn, this translates to funding and commissioning in these areas. Although, this leaves out the majority of homeless women who are much less likely to engage in rough sleeping.
Homeless women will engage in many things to avoid street sleeping, this can include engaging in sex for rent, getting back with abusive ex partners or for sex workers, staying with clients. However, as you can imagine, we are not going to ring up Housing Options at the council and disclose any of this. Often, the people we opt to stay with turn abusive, rape us or outright exploit us. When the time comes to try and leave, we will be told we are intentionally homeless. This is because we likely told the housing team that we are staying with a friend or family member, so it looks as though we are making ourselves homeless. By doing this, you won’t get housed because they argue it’s your choice.
What are your options in this situation? You are, as I describe, between a rock and a rock. You either make yourself homeless and end up in a hostel, street homeless or you stay in the abusive situation. Those fleeing domestic violence often get refused from mainstream services such as Refuge, especially sex workers and drug users, on safeguarding grounds. In fact, 60% of people were refused last year. If you end up in a hostel, you are not getting the same, appropriate and specialist domestic violence support that other women would get. If you end up street homeless, you will likely be assaulted – the risk of rape and physical assault is much higher. Alternatively, you begin trading sex for shelter.
Homeless women will sleep on friend’s sofas, in hospitals, on the bus, train lines, toilets etc. As a result from all of this, we are out of sight and out of mind and therefore, nobody thinks to tailor their services to us and little funding goes towards female homelessness. Often, homeless women are put into mixed gender hostels, which is not always the best environment but there is no option. When they leave, they are again told they are intentionally homeless. You can’t seem to win here? If you are picked up by housing options or outreach services, you then are faced with years of temporary accommodation, which in itself is stressful, traumatic and is what I describe, the perfect conditions to become a sex worker.
When I moved into a hostel, there were 8 beds in total and 7 of us were street sex workers. Throughout the year I was there, women would come and go – sometimes for weeks, days or months. However, you are on Universal Credit and can’t get a job because housing benefit goes to the hostel. At 22, I was on £250 a month and surrounded by other sex workers. You are vulnerable, desperate, no money, possibly at your lowest point in life and mood, and seeing other women getting money, drugs and you take advantage of being there, and going out on the local beat with them for safety. I saw many women become sex workers in hostels, or return to it, such as myself.
You can not be homeless and not experience mental health problems. I challenge anyone on this argument. If you are not even able to reach your core needs such as food, shelter, hygiene or drugs when you’re withdrawing then the toll on your mental and physical health is immense, and they’re intertwined. I wrote a blog earlier this year about hard it was to switch off what I called ‘survival mode’. It’s absolutely exhausting just trying to reach your basic needs every day, and when you don’t know if you can even get there. I know many who have told me they try to go to prison just for a break from the daily grind of survival. When they come out, they say they miss being able to see a doctor, have routine, 3 meals a day and a roof over their head but above all, not having to worry or arrange those things either. Prison isn’t the answer, and it’s sad society is this way, but I understand why they feel such.
I remember sitting with my drug worker who gave me the best advice I could ever wish for, and it has since made me a better practitioner. We discussed how difficult her job could be if people constantly come in screaming or angry. She explained that you have no idea what is going on in their lives before they walk into your appointment; they may have just taken a beaten, called a shit mum by their kids or facing rent arrears. I realised most people are probably scared, have hard fronts or frightened. However, most services get angry and respond in worse ways, treat you as difficult and overall, have compassion fatigue.
If you’re a drug user, you’re often turned away from mental health services and it becomes a chicken and egg situation. Although there are dual diagnosis teams in drug services, these are limited, usually for the most severe mental health and is conditional on you engaging in the service. Counselling services in general exclude on the grounds on both consent, and it’s not appropriate as they can’t distinguish whether their mental health is due to drug use. I’ve had therapists say to me that they won’t ‘go into things’ with me in fear that I rely on drugs even more, which aggravated me a lot. What’s the point? A friend of mine was told they wouldn’t work with her whilst she was actively engaging in harmful practices, i.e sex work.
There is also a lot of stigma and shame around sex work, and for many they end up having to explain or defend themselves to the service. By this I mean, they have to explain that sex work is not always traumatic or the horrible stereotypes it’s portrayed as. Sex work isn’t traumatic itself, abusers cause trauma. More often than not, the drug use and poor mental health came long before prostitution, but the latter was used to fuel the former. This is not to deny that sex work can be traumatic, but you shouldn’t have to keep defending or justifying yourself and experiences to a service, because they do not understand mental health in the context of sex work. When you then talk about rape within sex work, it is always seen as differently and you either get people look down on you and ‘what do you expect’ attitudes, or the complete opposite of total pity which is patronising.
As mentioned before, those fleeing domestic abuse often get refused specialist support too, even just to get crisis mental health or told it wasn’t their fault, and for someone to explain it’s natural to feel the way they do. Overall, the picture is that there is very little provision in general, but especially for homeless populations. Adding to this, they are then further excluded and this just adds to compound trauma, and pushed further to the edges of society. Would this be acceptable for anyone else? If you was raped, you’d be signed off work and likely seek trauma therapy. If you’re a homeless woman, you’re expected to return to the abuser for housing and excluded from services that you need, that can help. However, you are then penalised if you use heroin, but you have nothing else or the resources for anything else.
The most marginalised and excluded women in this society are failed the hardest. Despite being the very people who have the most needs, and require the most support, we are still working on philanthropic, Victorian-esque models of ‘help’. Homeless services and charities are incredibly under-resourced, underfunded and due to the nature of commissioning, the lowest bidder often wins. The end result is, your support worker is being paid minimum wage, and is driven in the job by desire to create meaningful change and genuine desire to help. This isn’t the fault of the worker, but it means they are underpaid, not invested in, but expected to deal with the most extreme forms of trauma, exclusion and poverty that people can grapple with.
In the end, you end up with an overworked, exhausted, low paid work force. Quickly, their burning flame goes out, along with their original passion, which was taken advantage of to keep them in the poorly paid job. They still want change, but now they’re a pay-packet away from being a service user at the hostel with me. They may have loved their job, but they’re not given what they need to do it well, but they still need to pay their bills. Despite the incredible work these frontline workers do, their burden is high when it should be shared. We need counsellors, adequately funded drug services, community mental health teams, housing support and tenancy sustainment support, education and employment help, and so the list goes on.
Two years ago, I reported a rape and as a result, I was assigned an ISVA. Their role is to help you from reporting a crime until the court date. However, she ended up being the most incredible support worker, but her job role was severely flexed. She helped me with budgeting, housing, leaving sex work, employment, benefits, mental health, sexual health, domestic and sexual violence, and the police. I am 1 of 15 people on her caseload, and she is so lovely that I imagine she is doing the same for the other 14. This is not to knock her because I can’t fault, but the burden shouldn’t be just down to her. There needs to be adequate support all around; she shouldn’t have to be my therapist, my DV worker, my ISVA and life coach.
We tend not to invest in homeless people. The government leaves that up to the charity sector, and as a society, we accept that, rather than holding the government itself to account. We do that because us homeless people should be grateful for the bare minimum; for the tuna sandwich we don’t even like; for the mouldy and infested flat; for the minimum wage job, because at least it’s not homelessness, right? People are perplexed when they realise that homeless people choose to go back to the streets after they get into a tenancy, but is it really that surprising? The alternatives aren’t that appealing, and nobody else would be expected to be thankful for society’s leftovers.
We are not invested into because we are not seen as worthy investments. We die young, sex workers get murdered, we overdose, we don’t get jobs, we take benefits, spend long times in hospitals, have children removed which cost the state, get locked up and cost the state. The language used makes us disposable to society. Research has shown when you use language like ‘clean up the streets’, violence and murderers against sex workers increases because… people feel that’s okay, that we are to gotten rid of.
Why would governments want to invest in people that cost them a lot, die early, and deemed unproductive and undesirable? It’s why they they put in workhouses and gave the responsibility to charities. Now, they support whoever costs the least, at great expense to the incredible workforce who deliver the service itself.
I’ve painted a very bleak picture, but it’s because it is. The current system isn’t designed for those who need it most, and we know this because they are the ones excluded in the first place and each day, we work to include them in policies and procedures that never thought of them to begin with. Being in a service is not easy, and quite often, you are bounced around or forced to be there. Services themselves can result in more harm than good, and don’t end up truly serving the needs of the community.
Sadly, politics, money and red tape is often plastered in services but in my experience, you have to cut through all this because the homeless woman you’re supporting doesn’t give a shit about any of that, and it hasn’t helped her has it, otherwise they wouldn’t be sitting in-front of you? Services were made by people, they can be changed by people. However, many fear change, don’t see the financial cost benefit immediately (and that’s what they measure it on), and many fear backlash if they stray too far from their counterparts, they’ll scare away their commissioner.
Things at the top need to change, and more involvement of those with lived experience at every decision making level. Things are the way they are for a reason, and it’s worth remembering that when we say things have always been done this way, because it hasn’t. You simply CAN NOT stick to the rules when working with sex workers, because the rules were never made with us in mind. Stop trying to change us to suit you and your service.
Homeless women deserve better. They are the strongest, most incredible, resilient, and resourceful women I have ever had the privilege of knowing. I am amazed at their ability to live and survive each day, but they shouldn’t have to. Being strong because you have no choice is not a good thing.
We have more in common with the homeless woman than the rich woman.
If you want to support my blog that would be great. All of my PayPal’s have been shut down because I’m a sex worker of course. However, my cashapp is £graceyswer and my patreon is: patreon.com/graceyswer
Alternatively, please give money directly to a homeless person and not a charity