- Can you describe the work that MASH does?
MASH is a charity that provides help and support for women that sex work. Sex work is the term that we use for women in prostitution. We work with three different groups of women, women who are street sex workers, the visible face of sex work, the women that you see when you walk around the city. We work with women who work in saunas and massage parlours and we work with women who set themselves up as escorts, working independently.
We don’t really like to put women into different categories but we are a service delivery organisation and what we have to do is operate around a certain matrix so we deliver around those three areas. MASH has been operating in Manchester for 26 years now and we have an excellent reputation for what we do. We work closely with the local police and we are in partnership with lots of other agencies around Manchester. However, we are not a campaigning organisation. We’re not here for the rights of women sex workers, there are plenty of organisations that do that and do that really well. We are here to keep women safe and keep women healthy. When we originated some 26 years ago we were very much a harm reduction organisation so when we started we had a little van and went out in the van handing out free condoms and giving out information and advice around HIV. Harm reduction is still key to us and as the organisation has grown we now have the capacity to be able to help women who are looking to move on from sex work. Our focus is on empowering women by making sure they have access to the right support and the right information and that they have someone to advocate for them. A lot of our support is driven by the women, so it completely depends on what level of support women want from us.
We have a drop-in centre and some women will just come there for condoms and a hot meal and they might not take a further level of support from us until something goes very wrong and they’re in crisis. There are other women who have a caseworker working with them one on one and they are helping them with housing, maybe with addiction, maybe with mental health issues, with family life, with debt, with integrating into the community again. So, we have a massive spectrum of needs that women come to us with and we have a set up to answer all of those.
The facilities that we run are a drop-in centre which is in the city centre in the beat area, where women work on the streets. It’s been open since 2010 and from the drop-in centre we can offer a fully holistic support package. We are set up so that whatever women walk in with we can help with or have a partner organisation who can help. A lot of other agencies run clinics from here as for example, if a person is homeless it can be difficult to get medical help so the local doctors surgery can register women from here. We can do the same with dentists, mental health organisations, domestic violence charities and the police-run clinics from. A lot of other agencies use us a hub so we are a kind of one-stop shop. This means that the women always see our faces and we can gain their trust and they will actually use our service.
Some of the women’s lives can be very chaotic and they really struggle with appointments so a drop-in model is more useful. If for example you get a referral to main-stream services and you don’t go to an appointment and then a second appointment and so on you can get knocked off their list whereas here we’re always open and we don’t turn people away, we keep working with women.
We’re a small staffed team and our figures show that we have supported over 800 women in the last 12 months and we only manage that with the help of 65 volunteers. We have very well-trained dedicated volunteers who work one session a week with us here at the drop-in centre.
As well as the drop-in centre we also have the MASH van that goes around the streets of Manchester and Cheetham Hill late at night and this allows us to reach those really vulnerable women out on the streets. Women who don’t want to come into the drop-in centre for any reason. Through the van, we can offer on the spot help – this includes handing out condoms, a needle-exchange as well as a chat, a cup of coffee and a biscuit. That is probably the most important bit of that interaction. We can also get women into emergency overnight accommodation and be referred to any relevant services at the drop-in centre.
The third area in addition to the drop-in centre and the van is the sexual health nurse that we have who heads up outreach services in relation to saunas and massage parlours. The sexual health nurse will go into saunas and massage parlours to offer women on the spot help with their sexual health and any kind of further emotional health help that they want. There are approximately 70 saunas or parlours that come up easily on a Google search for Manchester as well as many more that are hidden which can include pop-up saunas that open for a couple of weeks here and there. The sexual health nurse visits a small number of these saunas on a rotational basis. We have a good relationship with some saunas but the legalities for women working in saunas can be complex. Sex work itself is legal in the UK, but when two women work together it becomes a sauna which is illegal. Additionally, a sauna when someone is running it, that is illegal because it’s illegal to profit from sex work in that way.
So, the saunas are illegal but are visited by us, they are visited by the police and they work with immigration services. They are therefore a bit of a grey area and that can be an issue for the women (street working and sauna working women) as they may not know their rights. This is one of the things we can do for them as well as helping improve their relationship with the police. That’s a massive aspect of the work that we do, encouraging women to use the services of the police, immigration services and the modern slavery unit.
- What changes have you seen in Manchester in the past 4 years?
I think the city itself, the specific area where we are, is seeing changes. We’re behind Piccadilly train station and it’s becoming more gentrified with more and more housing and more facilities such as bars and restaurants and cafes. We have a concern that the location of our drop-in centre which is next to where women work on the beat, that area is due to be redeveloped in the next couple of years. That will have a huge impact on women working out on the street. We don’t know at this point what that impact will be so we’re having to be fairly flexible as an organisation as what we want to make sure is that during these changes, women still have access to help. That might mean that women are not close to our drop-in centre. Women may disperse and go to different areas. Some women have already moved to work in Cheetham Hill which is obviously further away from our drop-in centre but we can connect with them through our outreach services.
We’ve also seen a lot more Eastern-European women and we have to work with them in a different way. Obviously, we have to have translators when we work with Eastern-European women and they generally seem to have different needs to the local women. There may be more elements of coercion or control in addition to very little understanding of the nature of the police and the nature of charities.
There has also been a massive increase in homelessness as services have been cut. There are very few services now for homeless women. What we did 18 months ago was get some funding for a homelessness worker because the two areas we need to work on with women to create better stability are around addiction and finding a home. We now have a specific homelessness worker who runs our outreach van and in the last 6 months she has managed to get 14 entrenched homeless women into accommodation by advocating for those women, by developing relationships with local housing providers and by offering them the one on one support that they need to get into a tenancy.
We would like to see more access to this one on one support around homelessness.
- What drives you to keep an organisation like MASH going?
Generally, the need needs answering and no one else is doing it. Very few organisations deal with women with complex needs.
On a personal level the women I see on a day to day basis drive me, their tenacity and their attitude in the face of obstacles, the way they keep going and their sense of humour. And I think just keeping up the attitude that these women aren’t sex workers, they’re women. Sex worker isn’t primarily what they are, a woman is what they are.
As an organisation we see the difference that we make on a day to day basis. We see the women who come in and if we weren’t here they would have nowhere else to go. We did a review, a snapshot survey of the women who access our services (bearing in mind the level of complex needs the majority may have) and over half of them were only coming to MASH for help.
Women know we can help if they want to leave sex work but they also know that we aren’t going to talk to them about it as soon as they walk through the door. Otherwise women wouldn’t come back in if we were encouraging them to do something that they’re not ready to do. When we’re working one on one with women we have around 10 different areas that we work in such as addiction, housing and family life and sex work isn’t one of those areas, it’s not a problem, it’s just a symptom of all the other complex needs.
- What changes would you like to see to improve the situation for your service users?
Greater access to one to one support for women with complex needs. For example, it’s very difficult for women with a dual diagnosis for instance a woman who is a drug user and has mental health issues, we can struggle to get a diagnosis for women in that situation. One to one support is flexible and best fitted to work with very chaotic women.
MASH itself needs more funding as do all niche charities like ourselves. We have seen so many of them disappear. There needs to be more social welfare provision, the reductions to benefits are impacting hundreds of people every day.
Finally, all services need to have a focus on women. Women can’t just be lumped in with general services as very often they need a completely separate service.
Victoria Waller – LPC Student at BPP Manchester