Guest blog: Carolyn Deverall on protecting vulnerable sex workers
I watched a young woman walk barefoot down the road, clutching a bag as she swayed from side to side, barely able to stand. She looked dishevelled and like she hadn't slept in days.
It turned out she was high on heroin and had relapsed only two days before. She was a street-based sex worker and I couldn't help but think about her for days afterwards, wondering if she was safe, wondering if she had gone off with a punter that night and survived.
She was a vulnerable young woman, someone's daughter, someone's sister, someone's friend.
She used to be more than this, she was a little girl once, but now she is selling her body to feed her drug habit, and because the man she loves tells her to.
I met her one night when I went out with the Nelson Trust in the Manchester Road area of Swindon as part of its Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP).
The project offers practical and emotional support to women involved in street-based sex working across Wiltshire. The first SWOP worker post at the Nelson Trust was funded by the Police and Crime Commissioner in 2013, and was such a success that, over the years, it has expanded and more posts have been created by the Trust.
Wiltshire Police supplies a simple, unmarked van to be used as part of the SWOP, and I was asked to go out with the van to see it all in action.
The van parks in the same spot every week and is stocked with food donated by the local Greggs bakery which is handed out to the women. More often than not, these women won't eat until the outreach van visits again. The SWOP workers offer food, clothes, condoms and a friendly face to these vulnerable women. Occasionally a nurse will accompany the SWOP workers with general and sexual health advice and health screenings.
On the evening I was there, at least ten women visited the van. The first thing they wanted was food, a hot drink, condoms and maybe a quick rummage through a box of donated clothes. They would stop to have a little chat, but then be on their way. Some would go back to sheltered accommodation and others would stand on the street looking for work.
What I witnessed felt surreal at times, very sobering and totally heart-breaking. The work that SWOP delivers is so important to these women and, in some instances, is the only time they feel someone cares. Plain-clothed police officers were around the area, so I never felt intimidated by the environment, and it was obvious that their presence made the women feel a little safer.
Few of these women choose the life that they have. They are exploited, most are drug addicts and many are assaulted by punters. The SWOP workers and the police work hard together to try to keep them as safe as they can.
I left satisfied that the funding provided to Nelson Trust by the Commissioner was put to very good use, and aware of yet another example of Wiltshire Police officers working beyond their normal beat to protect people at risk.
Carolyn Deverall is Service Improvement Officer in the Office of Police and Crime Commissioner Angus Macpherson
Read more on this: PC Lou Kuklinski writes about her work with SWOP, and how she and her team go #BeyondTheBeat to help protect vulnerable women.