Safe on the Streets: Supporting Sex Workers in Northampton

Alesha Watkins from Northampton's Substance to Solution explains how the service street outreach team is meeting the needs of local sex workers. 

Street outreach plays such an important part in our work, but one of the challenges our team faces is reaching people who are what we refer to as ‘hidden homeless’. These are people who might not be obviously bedded down and rough sleeping on the streets, but they have no secure, permanent place to live.  

People don’t think of them in the same way as someone who is sleeping rough, and support services can often overlook or miss them. 

We were hearing from our staff that local sex workers were falling into this grey area. There’s been no dedicated service for them for years, even though many of them have complex support needs or backgrounds of trauma. Drug and alcohol use is prevalent within this cohort, and the risks and stigma that they face on the streets is significant.  

Northampton police had already set up Operation Uncanny to outreach to sex workers at night, but they were struggling to engage. When the police show up people assume they’re in trouble. It’s seen as a punitive measure, so they would scatter and avoid engaging.  

We have been able to step in and help bridge that gap. In March 2022 our street outreach team arranged to go with the police on their outreach sessions, to help create a more harmonious relationship between local sex workers, police and support services.  

Since then we’ve continued to build on this relationship. We’ve created a very open space where we can sit down with people and chat about their situation and their needs. Some of the women have told us they’ve never had anyone take the time to find out what they want, and to understand the deeper level of their situation.  

We now have a permanent Women at Risk Worker to support women who are sex working. Some of the women have disclosed sexual assaults to us, and we’ve been able to make them feel comfortable reporting their cases to the police. That may never have happened if we hadn’t been there to make that relationship easier.  

It's been a massive catalyst in Northampton. We’ve gone from having nothing in place for sex workers, no one supporting them, to a point where we have an established outreach programme. We have a community hub with facilities, toilets, one-to-one rooms, even screenings for sexually transmitted infections. It’s also given us a base from which we can go out and meet the women to give them naloxone kits, cleaning injecting equipment, condoms, even their prescriptions.  

Thanks to our partnership with the housing charity NAASH and Northamptonshire Council, we now have three flats where we can house people while they gain a level of security and stability.  

One of the women we met with had been using heroin and crack and struggling badly with her mental health. Since we engaged with her she’s stopped sex working and she’s no longer using heroin. She’s now ready to move into one of our flats so she can fully engage with the support and treatment available to her. A case like hers just wouldn’t have been possible before.  

For our service, it’s been about finding an approach that works for and meets the needs of a group who are so often stigmatised and overlooked. It can begin just by giving them a warm drink and the time, compassion and care they need to build trust again. Once that happens, we can help them to find a roof over their head and the support they need.  

Working with the women has been an inspiring and emotional experience for all of us, and it’s a relationship we plan on growing and developing into the future.  

If you’d like to find out more about this project and our work in the area, you can find out how to contact the service on our website.