The past year-January 2020 to now, has tested us all in more ways than one, but more than anything it has shown how resilient we are as a team and how quickly we have been able to adapt to the new COVID guidelines.
We continue to manage a case load of clients, some who have exited prostitution completely, and others who are still involved in ‘street prostitution’ and via the internet. We provide support relating to housing, benefits, counselling, health care and often – just a chat! The reality we have come to face is that many of our women are simply not ready to change their way of life. Most of our work is based around harm reduction. Our clients continue to ‘sex work’ and use drugs so we have to be able to support them to do this as safely as possible. We provide a needle exchange supported by Sidney Street drug services in Sheffield which allows the women access to clean needles and other drug paraphernalia. We provide condoms and advice around safe sex and fast track services to Sexual Health in Sheffield. Sexual health screening was also taking place by Sali (Manager) in-house, but due to COVID cannot take place at this time.
Until the first national lockdown in March 2020 we continued to provide a weekly drop-in service for our clients. This would often include crafts, baking or visiting the local museum or gardens. For a lot of our clients this was the only social interaction they had outside of ‘sex working’. It’s an opportunity for all to share experiences, have a laugh and forget about their problems.
It is understandable how difficult it has been for our clients since COVID19 hit, as immediately we had to close our office and cancel all drop-ins. We must remember that a lot of our clients have barriers to information – no smart phone’s or tv with the latest news and many do not have access to newspapers. Therefore, it was a very scary time for them, all their most needed support services had to close. SWWOP had to adjust to working in a more Covid secure way. We wrote all our clients a letter explaining what was happening and the government guidelines around coronavirus and what you should do if you are experiencing symptoms, we also made sure we talked to our clients about the issues as not all of them have homes we could post to, but we knew some of our clients are unable /or wouldn’t bother reading a letter.
We moved over to primarily telephone support for the first few weeks which again was incredibly challenging. Many of our clients do not have access to mobile phones, but we were lucky as ‘St-Martin in the Field’ had given us a small grant (originally used for prison release) and we were allowed to use some of it to purchase cheap pay as you go mobile phones for our clients.
Outreach provision altered, one worker to drive the bus & the other worker in her car behind. As we drew up to clients, the worker in the car had to park up & get in the back of the outreach van through the back doors & lock them. This gave both workers a 2-metre space as our van is a large Mercedes Sprinter. We were able to pass sandwiches, drinks, needle exchange items & condoms etc through the window while wearing gloves & a mask. Many of our clients were very angry we were wearing masks as they took it that we thought they had covid! But it worked and is still working. We also provide masks & wipes etc in the food parcels we give out.
Fast forward to December 2020 and we are still remote working and limiting our contact with each other. We lone work in the office to limit the potential spread of the virus between workers. As we are such a small team, the service would be massively impacted if we all had too self-isolate. We are still providing community outreach support to our clients. Doorstep support and food parcel deliveries for those clients housed & the council have done a great job in finding accommodation for many of our more vulnerable homeless clients. Yes, some are housed far away from SWWOP & it is expensive re fuel costs delivering supplies etc, but worth it as we can keep in touch with the majority. For those clients receiving home deliveries, they really enjoy the 121 they now have. At drop-ins it was always the loudest who got heard, now some of the clients are having 121 half hour sessions with their key worker, breaking up their loneliness & helping with their mental health.
We have seen an increase in clients reporting domestic violence & also an increase of attacks against them on the streets. We use a multi-agency approach to ensure these clients are given the best and most practical support.
Overall, 2020 has been a very difficult year for all. We have implemented new ways of working that ensure we can provide the best support to our clients no matter what and despite them not being able to come into the office for a cuppa and a biccie (though they are often given a hot chocolate outside of the office & they sit at the bus stop & chat across to us)–they can still reach out to us for anything they may need.
We have also been very lucky with our client group, you would have thought that the homeless, street sex workers and drug users would be the most vulnerable at this time, but we have lost only 2 clients during Covid, both were accidental overdoses. We haven’t lost any to Covid.