Written by Dr Alan Billings
10th Oct 2023
A fair number of us have probably walked past the unremarkable door that leads to the Sheffield Working Women’s Opportunities Project (SWWOP) just off Sheffield’s inner ring road without realising this small charity was there. Behind the door is a steep staircase leading to two or three rooms above some shops.
They provide practical help to one of the most vulnerable and socially isolated group of women in the city – sex workers. I had just awarded a grant for them to increase some of the work and was paying a visit to see what they were currently doing.
Briefly, they have a drop-in centre which is open five days a week between 10am and 2pm – a safe space where the women can come for help, advice, food, clothing – or just a friendly chat. Many of the women struggle to access housing or benefits, they need help with court appearances or drug abuse treatment. There is also an out of hours homelessness service.
They also have a van which goes out in the evening to what they call ‘the beat’ – the streets where the women are picked up by the men. The van takes out hot drinks and sandwiches. They also have condoms and needles. They can be a source of intelligence about ‘dodgy punters’. They are a re-assuring presence to the women whose decidedly unglamorous work is not without risk and danger. The grant I gave will enable them to double the number of evenings they are out from three to six.
Many if not all the working women have had traumatic experiences in the past, often starting when very young, which have driven them into prostitution. Many have witnessed abuse in childhood and some have been victims of it.
The staff at the charity described how girls and women come to take that first step and how very hard it is to exit the way of life they have entered once they have done so. How else are they to find the money not just for the next fix – most, though not all, are dependent on drugs – or for food or rent? The cost of living crisis is driving more into prostitution and is also seeing some who left it some years ago beginning to return to the streets – all of which makes it harder to help those who want to exit this way of living, as some do.
But they are vulnerable. Some men don’t pay. They suffer ill health. They are likely to be ostracised. They are too often alcohol and drug dependent. They get into situations that are violent. They can be assaulted and raped.
Many people who are vulnerable or struggling with life will command a great deal of sympathy from the community. But that is rarely true of these women. Needless to say, they can take up a fair amount of police time for one reason or another – which is part of the reason why I seek to help the charity that helps them.
The charity itself is very dependent on donations, however small. If you feel moved to help you can go online and do so. £5 would secure sandwiches for two outreach sessions, feeding 20 women.
So far this year there have been 80 homicides in London, 16 being of young people, 14 of whom were stabbed to death. Most of those arrested for these teenage murders were teenagers themselves.
One of the most recent and most shocking was the killing of 15-year-old Elianne Andam on her way to school in Croydon. ‘Our hearts are broken’, the family said, and in the immediate aftermath that seemed to me the only thing to be said and the only thing worth listening to; but everything was immediately politicised.
I can’t comment on the killing of Elianne because that is an on-going investigation and we cannot speculate on what we don’t know. But I will comment on what others said in more general terms about why so many young people – they believed – continue to carry knives and what should be done about it. These included people from the local community, youth workers, MPs, councillors, commentators and academics. I listened to what they all had to say.
By chance, I met this week a prison officer who was telling me about her experiences of what is happening to youth custody – the young offender institutions (YOIs). Although we are sending fewer young people to prison than we did when I was a member of the Youth Justice Board, more than a decade ago, those who do have custodial sentences tend to be those who have committed more serious and violent crimes – which probably doesn’t make the task of rehabilitation in YOIs any easier.
Listening to the voices from Croydon, it all had a wearisome familiarity about it and was all very predictable. This is not to say that what they said was wrong or misguided, only that it begs questions about why the cycle of youth violence cannot be broken if the cures are so clear and, by and large, many of those interventions are being attempted.
Here in South Yorkshire, for example, I fund many youth activities such as football, angling and boxing clubs, because we know that young people on the streets can be lured into gangs and become involved in violence. So we seek to divert them. If we can provide meaningful activities where young people can find companionship and good role models, older people whom they will respect and who will mentor them, we can keep at least some away from violence. And there are many other groups and charitable foundations that do similar things.
We have a Violence Reduction Unit that supports preventative work, including projects in schools. We enable those with ‘lived experience’ either as victims or perpetrators to meet with young people to speak about the impact on their lives of stabbings. I could go on.
All these were things that those interviewed in Croydon were either already supporting or advocating. So what can we say if we can’t stop youth violence?
I have no doubt that all the initiatives I outline above have an impact on the lives of those who are engaged with them, though we can’t always know how many are deterred and diverted. But what I think we are sometimes missing is something bigger and broader that will need a bigger and broader approach.
I recall a conversation I once had with a boy in a Young Offender Institution. He had been convicted of stabbing another boy. I wanted to understand why he carried a knife. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: ‘Didn’t you realise that you might cause him serious harm?’
Him: ‘That was the point.’
Me: ‘But didn’t you realise you might get hurt yourself or end up here, in prison.’
Him: ‘That was a risk I had to take.’
Him: ‘Because it was better than ending up slashed or dead.’
As long as some young boys think like that, the cycle will not be broken.
The bigger task, then, is supporting families and then communities so that all our young people, wherever they live, feel they are in a safe place. And that is a much bigger task than the interventions targeting individuals, important though they are.
By the end of last week I felt I wanted to get away from crime, so my wife and I went to the ballet at the Lyceum in Sheffield to see Romeo and Juliet. Wonderfully energetic dancing to Prokofiev’s music, as you would expect from a Matthew Bourne production. But it ended with the death of the two young lovers – from stabbings. And there was blood everywhere.