I’m looking at the list of names on the office wall of all the women I support, who are all involved in selling sex on the streets. It’s our weekly team meeting and I brief my colleagues on how the Friday night outreach team met Marcia, a homeless woman in a violent relationship. She is sleeping with her abusive boyfriend because it’s safer than sleeping rough on her own. He forces her to share needles, and to sell sex.
We talk about ways to support her, but without a phone or address it’s difficult. It’s hard to find places I can meet with women like Marcia – many cafes, where we build trust and rapport, are closed. I add her name to the list, and fire off emails to the police and street homeless teams.
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I open my laptop and find urgent emails from both probation and police regarding Sally, a woman I’ve been supporting. A while back I received similar emails to inform me that one of my clients had killed herself. My heart races as I open them. My worst fears are confirmed: Sally has died due to a suspected overdose. I feel numb. I call a colleague who met Sally on outreach many times. We process the news together. I don’t want to think about removing Sally’s name from my list.
Luckily, today is my monthly clinical supervision. It’s a much-needed space to process the pain of supporting women through such challenging circumstances. Since lockdown this has too often included grief following death. It is not something I was prepared for.
It’s 10am. I’ve been waiting for an hour. I keep calling Linda’s phone, but it goes to voicemail. I’m praying she turns up. At 10.15am she runs up apologising profusely. She couldn’t find anywhere to stay last night so couldn’t charge her phone.
Amazingly she has all her important documents with her. How she has managed to keep them safe all these months while living in chaos astounds me. We hop on a bus, arriving late to the supported accommodation. The staff treat her with kindness. I leave her to settle into her new room, and visit some other women I support who live here.
Pre-coronavirus, Thursdays were my favourite day of the week. A colleague and I would take an early morning seat in a cafe near to where the women would sell sex. We’d wait for women to see us for a chat, hot drink, food. However, the cafe is shut and unlikely to open for months. I sit at my desk feeling a pang of sadness. It was always a great place to connect with women who did not have phones. Sally, who died, was often one of them.
I keep thinking that if it wasn’t for the pandemic, things could have been different for her. We would have not lost connection. I could have helped her with her substance abuse issues. I call women on the phone trying to support them as best I can. It’s not the same but it’s better than nothing.
I’m doing outreach tonight. At 10pm, a volunteer and I take condoms, clean needles, hot chocolate and food on to the beat. We meet Jenny, and I remind her to contact her probation officer for an appointment next week. She’s grateful for the hat and gloves I give her, as it’s getting chilly.
I spot Natalie, who I haven’t seen since before Covid. We can’t hug now which feels sad. Often that would be the only non-exploitative contact she’d have all night. We leave her on the corner. When I look back, I see her tumble into a punter’s car. We wonder – not for the first time – who would buy sex from such vulnerable women.
All names have been changed
The writer is a support worker at Beyond the Streets
Call the 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, on 0808 2000 247. Women’s Aid’s online chat can be found here
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.