Welfare benefits helped save Louise from sex work – but it was their latest incarnation, Universal Credit, which nearly forced her back onto the streets.
After years of selling her body in Leeds, she had managed to find some stability with the help of a charity and had become a carer for her mum.
But amid the chaotic roll-out of the government’s new benefits system, Louise was sent a letter demanding she set up an online account for Universal Credit within a matter of days, or her money would be stopped.
Struggling to provide the documentation required, Louise frantically told support workers near where she lived in Holbeck, Leeds: “If I don’t get any money sorted soon, I am going to be back on the streets selling sex for money.”
The Holbeck area of Leeds is home to ‘managed approach’ dubbed as Britain’s first ‘legal red light zone’. It was introduced in 2014 to increase access and safety for sex workers in Holbeck, and to address concerns by local residents and businesses.
The “managed approach” means that in the area, enforcement activity will not take place against sex workers between 8pm and 6am unless there are offences which “outrage public decency” – in other words, sex acts in full public view.
The scheme has been highly controversial since it was set up in 2014 with some critics claiming it is causing more women in the area to enter sex work.
However, charities supporting the sex workers say it is austerity which is having a huge impact on keeping and causing women to return to the industry and say the managed approach scheme has actually made them feel safer and led to a better relationship with the police.
Louise had been out of sex work for around six months when she encountered her issues registering for Universal Credit.
The flagship reform, which folds six different benefits into one payment and has been progressively rolled out nationally since 2013, has been widely criticised for delays in payments and administrative hurdles. Gemma Scire, the head of Basis Yorkshire, a charity supporting sex workers, said Louise struggled to find her birth certificate, which was made harder because she grew up in care.
Louise also had limited access to the internet and found the online system complicated to navigate. “She knew deep down if push came to shove, she would go back to sex-working, as she knew that’s how she could earn money to get by,” Scire said.
Eventually, the situation was resolved, but the charity says the episode is illustrative of a particularly toxic situation for former sex workers, many of whom feel they may have to return to the streets as a result of benefits cuts.
“We have had cases of women saying they were being driven back into street sex work because of Universal Credit. But luckily, we have been able to intervene and help them,” Scire said. “Street sex work can stem from issues such as poverty, homelessness and domestic abuse. It is not about drugs, it is about money.”
Frank Field, MP for Birkenhead, told the Commons a few months ago that some of his constituents had been forced into sex work as a result of the government’s controversial welfare reforms.
Now a charity supporting women in an area of Leeds, the first place in the country where sex workers can ply their trade without fear of arrest, is backing Field’s claims and confirming that many of the women they aid feel they have to sell sex to survive amid welfare reforms.
Amber Wilson, a manager at Basis, said many women are returning to sex work to top up their incomes, or their pensions amid continuing austerity.
“Some are in work poverty as they are not earning enough money and others are on zero hour contracts or have unstable working patterns or are facing losing their housing,” she said.
Wilson said Christmas is a particularly difficult time, with some women reportedly returning to the streets to earn money for presents for their families.
But the women who work in Holbeck are at least getting the attention of the local authorities. The community safety partnership, which includes Leeds Council and West Yorkshire Police, has just announced a new dedicated policing team for the area.
It’s not just an attempt to support the sex workers - the move follows complaints and protests from residents about anti-social behaviour and discarded condoms. As well as drafting in more officers, the new measures will include cleaning services to address issues raised by the community.
Paul Money, chief officer for Safer Leeds, says the dedicated force will safeguard vulnerable women in the street sex trade while supporting them with routes out of the industry. He told HuffPost UK: “Leeds, like every other major city and town, has historically had a street sex working issue.
“The approach to tackle the sex work issue largely used to be through law enforcement arrangements typically led by the police.
“But with the very nature of sex work being so established, a purely enforcement led approach was largely ineffective. All it does is drive it underground.”
One more consequence of the managed approach scheme is a spike in the reporting of criminal offences, which local police say is evidence that they are gaining the women’s trust. “We have always known sex workers are subjected to violence, sexual assault and intimidation.
“But unless we are engaging with them and making them feel confident in reporting it, we would never know or be able to tackle it. Women are now far more likely to report these crimes,” Money said.
Figures from Basis support the claim that sex workers now have greater trust in the police and are more willing to speak to them. Women have for years used the National Ugly Mugs scheme to anonymously report crimes against them, and to share information about men who harm women.
National Ugly Mugs uses an online reporting system, texts and e-mail to create a network connecting thousands of sex workers and hundreds of support services. It takes reports of incidents from sex workers and gives warnings to other sex workers and support projects. With consent, they share anonymous information with the police.
Basis has compiled reports for many years for Ugly Mugs on behalf of women and say until managed approach, women were reluctant to report such crimes to the police.
Scire said: “In 2013, only 7% of women who reported a crime against them to Ugly Mugs gave us permission to share their details with the police.
“However, the latest figures show that since managed approach, 57% of women were happy for their details to be shared with the police in order to report the crime.”
Recently, 79% of sex workers surveyed said they would report a crime to police if it happened in the managed area.
Chief Supt Steve Cotter, Leeds District Commander at West Yorkshire Police, said: “We remain convinced that this approach is the right one as it provides the best opportunity to safeguard the vulnerable women involved in street sex work; to limit the issues that impact on residents and businesses and to reduce the level of street sex work in Leeds.
“We now have significantly improved communication with the women which has led directly to offenders being convicted and imprisoned.”
However, Scire says not all men who buy sex are out to harm women. “There are some relationships between women and particularly their regulars which are based on mutual respect.
“These men stick to what they agree to and abide by the rules and don’t harm women.
“But there are men who purposefully target street sex workers because they think they are vulnerable.
“Resources need to be targeted on men who are out to harm women rather than those buying sex.”