Paul Streets: Small sex-worker charity breaks taboos

Luton-based Azalea is one of those organisations that show the small local charity model at its best, writes our columnist

Paul Streets
Paul Streets

Small charities often come into their own when breaking taboos. Let’s take the very taboo subject of sex workers as an example. It’s one of the toughest and often overlooked issues, where local charities are often the only means of reaching these most vulnerable of women.

Over the years, I’ve visited or spoken with many charities we fund that work with sex workers. Meeting them can be deeply affecting, especially for those of us a long way from this sharpest of front lines.

I recently visited Azalea in Luton, which was founded in 2007 by its chief executive, Ruth Robb. Azalea has just relocated to an old hat factory near the centre of town after the youth organisation it previously sub-let from went out of business. Another sign of the times.

Azalea, like the flower it’s named after, is wonderfully bright and fragrant. There are lilies on the reception and it smells of fresh paint. Robb tells me what lies behind the design. It’s being decorated and furnished to look like a home rather than an institution, an important perception for the women the charity supports. The room where therapeutic work takes place is warm and comfortable. The women sit where they can always see the door so have their escape route in view – a powerful metaphor for lives that are trapped.

Next door there’s a nice shower and a rack of clothes. Many of the women Azalea works with are on the streets or sofa surfing and have very little. There’s also a cupboard full of free toiletries and food that can be eaten cold or microwaved, because most of the women it works with don’t live in homes with ovens.

Robb explains that sex work in Luton is currently worse than that she encountered in Kings Cross, London, when it was the sex work and HIV centre of London.

I ask her what she means by "worse"? She says she means price. One of the women charges £7 – or a packet of 20 cigarettes – for full sex without a condom. Think about that for a moment.

The 82 women supported by Azalea are sisters, partners, mothers. In one case, a grandmother.

That’s because sex work is largely intergenerational. One of the women was groomed by her mother, the same mother who is now looking after her children while she works. It’s the only thing they know. Almost all are drug users. Most are under 40 and some are between 16 and 18 years old.

The majority have at some point been through the care system. It’s a sad indictment of society’s  approach to supporting vulnerable families and "looked-after" children.

It’s hard not to be affected by the dedication and commitment of people like Robb who run small charities. Often self-deprecating, they are truly the saints of the voluntary sector.

Supporting sex workers is one of the cause areas where the small local charity model is at its most effective because street sex workers have a deep distrust of anything that smacks of institution or authority.

The nights that Azalea opens its doors, the charity is staffed by volunteers. This is a deliberate move: it helps to create trust and make it clear that this is not a place where "officials" work, because that would prevent vulnerable women from approaching them for help.

Street sex working is surely a tragedy of our times. But thankfully, and despite all the challenges and struggles they face, small charities are still with us, providing some light at the end of the tunnel.

The experience the charity has developed over the years means it is now ready to take its work forward, applying what it has learnt to new ways of working. It’s an innovation that comes through specialism, expertise and a deep-rooted knowledge of the women and communities it supports.

It’s a fantastic example of small and local at its innovative best and sometimes a story is the best way to show how and why that is.

Paul Streets (@PaulStreets) is the chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales

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