Streetwise: showing genuine love and providing practical support for sex workers
Julie Connolly from Frontline Church in Liverpool writes in the New Magazine about the work of the organisation that she is involved with called "Street Wise".
Street Wise work amongst the sex workers who walk the city streets of Liverpool. Encouraging the church to engage with these women as we would any other person. Julie reminds the reader that although they may have serious drug habits which they fund through prostitution, these women are real women from real families, with real families.
Julie concludes this article by saying that through prayer they long to see and are seeing real spiritual breakthrough.
Julie Connolly writes...
74% Of women involved in sex work cite poverty or the need to pay household expenses or support their children, as a primary motivator for putting their lives at risk. It is also estimated that as many as 95% of women involved in prostitution have a drug or alcohol addiction. What can churches do to reach these women with God's love? Julie Connolly shares how the Streetwise Project in Liverpool operates.
When two of us from Frontline church in Liverpool first went out to meet some of the sex workers on the city streets, all of our pre-conceived ideas about them were blown out of the water. These are regular women that we probably queue up behind in the supermarket. Yes, most of them have a serious drug habit that they fund through sex work, while others do it to get rent money or money for Christmas presents, but they are real people with families and loved ones.
Starting something new
We asked some of the women what their needs were and what we could do to help them. They were wary of us, as we expected, but it gave us our first taste of what life is like for them.
We started the Streetwise project as a trial for six months. We took two cars out each Saturday, with about six team members in each, with flasks of hot water, serving tea, coffee and hot chocolate from the car boots. We also gave out sandwiches, chocolate biscuits and decided that we wanted to give out condoms too. Our reason for deciding to do so is that we want to be primarily a mercy ministry, followed closely by an evangelistic ministry. We want the girls to know that we don’t judge them and that we care about their physical as well as spiritual health.
Learning from others
On one night out we came into contact with a secular organisation called Armistead who had been doing mobile outreach in the same area for many years. They became a wonderful help and support to us, especially in those early days, giving us recommendations on how to best operate Streetwise. Based on their recommendations, we switched to only using one car each night, with a maximum of four team members at a time. We soon formed a very positive relationship, which is still going strong today. I think it’s important that churches don’t rule out working alongside secular organisations. We don’t have all the answers and if we want to be the best at what we do, let’s build with those who can help us!
After visiting the 125 Project in Bristol, which is similar to Streetwise, I knew that God wanted us to pray for a van instead of using our cars. So as a team we did this. Some people put on events to raise money and one wonderful woman from the church gave us her car to sell to go towards buying the van. We sold it for £3,000 and bought our van. We used other fundraised money to fit out the van with benches and a table. It’s brilliant to be able to sit inside with the women, out of the rain and cold, and it has led to us having much more time to chat with them.
From trust to friendship
It probably took about a year for the women to trust us. They needed to see that we were reliable; that we didn’t judge or criticise but simply loved them. There is no shortcut to gaining that kind of trust, it just takes time.
Now all of the women recognise and trust us and we have very close relationships with some of them. Sometimes team members meet women for coffee; we visit them if they are in hospital, and have supported them when going to court if they’ve wanted us to be there. We have gained a good reputation in the city and Armistead call on us to help them with some of their contacts. When we asked two Armistead workers to come to Frontline and talk about what they do, they were so positive about our work, saying that the women love and trust us, and they even thanked God for us!
We now go out on the streets every Friday and Saturday night from 10pm until 1am. It varies greatly how many women we come into contact with on each night. We have 36 volunteers, split into teams of four (three women and one man) who have all been CRB checked. There are four Friday teams and four Saturday teams. We always interview potential volunteers to check their suitability and let them go on a ‘trial night’ with a team first. We ask each volunteer to sign up for six months at a time so we can plan rotas in advance. This ensures that Streetwise can be reliable and consistent in serving the women. In three and a half years we have only missed four nights, due to heavy snow!
Last year we held a Women’s Conference at Frontline and asked the delegates to bring new shoes and bags to give out to the women on the streets. We got so many that we were able to give some to a project in Southampton as well as some to Armistead. We put a label on each one that said how we think the women are beautiful, precious and of great worth. The girls loved the gifts, but it was the labels that moved them to tears.
At Christmas someone gave us £500 specifically to spend on Christmas for the women. We were able to get great presents for them and delivered nine food hampers to those with whom we have close relationships. We put Christmas lights in the van and a little Christmas tree, which we encouraged the woman to decorate by writing prayer requests on paper baubles.
Here’s what some of the women have said about Streetwise:
“I feel safer on the nights when Streetwise is here and know that if anything bad happens I can come to you.”
“I’d been living on the streets for months. A warm drink, food and sitting in the van helped me get by every week. Streetwise were the ﬁrst people I wanted to tell when I got a place in a hostel - you and Armistead. Remember? I came running up to tell you and everyone cheered!”
“The difference with you is that your people seem to actually care about us girls. Like when I got attacked and was in a total state. One of the Streetwise people sat with me all night and helped me make a report of what he looked like so they could warn the other girls. They said I should report it to the police, but I didn’t want to and they didn’t make me. I remember she cried as well, it wasn’t just form-ﬁlling.”
“We always know you’ll be here and we can trust you. When you ﬁrst met us years ago we were living in a squat or on the streets and life was rubbish. Things have changed for us and life is loads better now. But part of that was through friends on Streetwise sticking by us. Jude [a Streetwise volunteer] even came with me when I had to go to court. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to go on my own. We’re slowly getting off the drugs, but you need people to believe you can do it.”
“At ﬁrst we only expected you guys to stick with us for a few weeks then give up on us. But three years later you’re still here!”
We desire to see these women loved and cared for and to see God break the powers of addiction in their lives and their hearts healed. There are wonderful organisations and groups that can help women who want to get out of sex work and off drugs, but it is only God who heals and restores and we want to be a part of that process.
The teams always pray before they go out on Friday and Saturday nights. We want to see the power and love of God displayed each week! But we only pray with the women if they ask us to, or if it comes up naturally in conversation. The women we meet know that we are Christians, so we leave it up to them if and when they want to ask us about our faith. We have had lots of opportunities to pray for them over the years, whether that’s because they feel ill or because something specific is troubling them. A few have come to church. One woman, who we supported through detox and rehab, is now on the church welcoming team. Another woman we are supporting is now off the street and engaged in a methadone script programme.
We are only scratching the surface with Streetwise and are learning all the time. But it’s a journey that we love, with wonderful women whom it is an absolute privilege to serve.
This material appears copyright of New Wine Magazine and is used with kind permission.