Street sex work is inherently dangerous so it will surprise few people to learn that trying to make things safer for the women involved is at the heart of the ‘managed approach’ in Leeds.
The YEP has reported this week on the concerns residents hold about the sex trade spreading beyond the agreed streets in Holbeck and into neighbouring residential areas as well as how the scheme evolved.
But Emily Turner, an outreach worker with Leeds charity Basis, understands better than many how it is having an impact on the ground.
“There was a guy driving around asking the women to set him up with an underage girl,” she said. “Three separate women all reported different pieces of information.”
A few years ago this man might never have come to the attention of the police because the women would not talk about why they were out on the streets for fear of arrest.
Now that they are allowed to seek trade within certain hours, there has been a real change in their relationship with police.
In 2013, just 13 sex workers in Leeds reported crimes against them and none were willing to give them names to enable the perpetrators to be prosecuted.
Two years later, crimes reported by the city’s sex workers had risen to 61 and, crucially, 54 per cent of the women gave their details compared to 26 per cent nationally.
Emily said: “That is huge. That is evidence. That’s the important thing about the managed approach based on real evidence. Thinking is not good enough, we need to know why it works.”
Reports shared with the police and charity go into a newsletter distributed during the outreach sessions in Holbeck along with items like safety alarms for the women.
“These reports are coming from the women because of the managed approach,” Emily said. “It can be anything from someone driving a car by and shouting abuse out of the window to assault or robbery.
“The police will deal with that and feed back to them. That’s a really important part as the women feel believed.”
Three nights a week, Emily and colleagues load up the Basis van with items such as hot drinks and condoms.
They then drive round the managed area, chatting to the women about any issues.
“It lasts about three hours and we would expect to see, on average, about 12 people,” Emily said. “The majority of those will be women who have been working for a long time.
“We see a few Eastern European women and that’s similar across the whole country.
“We’ll see what’s going on with them at the moment, if they’re off script (for a drug replacement programme) or if they’re homeless at the moment. We’ll signpost them to other services or we can sometimes support them with services at our office.”
The charity team are regularly joined by workers from other services who can offer a needle exchange, mental health support and sexual health advice.
“We’re very aware that women don’t want to be there particularly,” Emily said. “They are in chaotic situations where they feel they don’t have any other options sometimes, but we need to make it as safe as it can be. What’s not safe is arresting women or the police stopping them all the time and giving them cautions. They won’t stop being there, they will just hide, which makes it more difficult for us to see them.”
And if the managed approach was to end, it would be services like this as well as the additional police patrols and morning litter picks that would go with it.
Emily said: “We really want to reassure people that this whole approach is there to make things better for everybody – the women, the business and the residents.”