In this blog, our Communications Manager, Laura Foad, describes her experience of going on outreach with the West Midlands-based IRIS Team who provide programmes and support services to help women who are being - or who are at risk of being - sexually exploited and involved in sex work or ‘survival sex’.
Just over three months into my time working at Changing Lives as the Communications Manager, I was invited by the IRIS Team to join them for an evening of outreach work.
I had previously met the team at the end of June and had been blown away by their passion and dedication to the work they do. The small, but effective, team are based in Wolverhampton and provide programmes and support services to help women who are being, or who are at risk of being, sexually exploited and involved in sex work or ‘survival sex’.
My first visit to the West Midlands had provided me with the opportunity to meet my colleagues and learn about their roles. During that time, we talked about their day-to-day work, including barriers and challenges, pros and cons and everything in between. I came away in awe of each member of the team and when asked if I’d be interested in joining them on outreach, I knew it was something I had to do.
Outreach started at 8pm, when I joined Jaz who has been involved in the project for six years. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the evening so Jaz explained that we would be driving between Wolverhampton and Walsall to hand out condoms and goody bags to the ladies and check in with them. I was tasked with making notes that would then be entered into Inform (the IT case management system used by Jaz and the team to keep a record of the women they support) the following day. Jaz explained how the team uses Inform to keep updates on the types of support needed or received by the women and it is also used if the Police raise concerns about a woman or if she has not been seen for a while.
Having picked up from speaking to Jaz and the team previously that their relationships with the ladies they support is vital, I was nervous how they might respond to a stranger. I made it clear that if needed, I would stay in the background so as to not jeopardise anything on the evening. I also questioned (internally) how safe I was going to be during outreach. As someone who doesn’t work on the frontline for Changing Lives, this is never something I have to worry about, so it was a strange feeling to have and reaffirmed my admiration for Jaz, the team and all other frontline colleagues more than ever.
Any worries that I had quickly disappeared after meeting the first two ladies. As someone with no experience of working with women who find themselves in these situations, I suppose like most people without experience would, I had a certain idea in my head of how they might come across (most certainly formed as a result of the society I grew up in).
What struck me the hardest upon the meeting the women during outreach was how ‘normal’ they were. Their reasons for engaging in street sex work varied, but they were all women just trying to survive in what is an extremely difficult time for many people around the country.
All but one of the women talked to us, as we discussed worries they had about their children, their accommodation situation and the cost of living – all things I talk about with my friends. All of the women were polite and extremely grateful for Jaz’s support and the packages we were handing out.
It was hard to hear from a woman who was back at work less than 24 hours after being attacked by a man, however it was encouraging to know Jaz was on hand to offer support and advice to her. At this point, I experienced just a small amount of the vicarious trauma that Jaz and the team must encounter on a regular basis. I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman as I drove home at 11pm back to the safety of my dad’s house.
Spending the night with Jaz highlighted to me the importance of the outreach work her team and other teams in Changing Lives carry out. The reaction of the women upon seeing Jaz was quite emotional and it’s clear that she is such an important part of their lives. I hope this isn’t the last time I get to go out on outreach, either with this team or any other, because it was such an invaluable experience for me in so many ways.