By Frankie Mullin
“When I first came to Open Doors I was picked up off the street by a drugs worker. I was wearing shoes without any soles,” says K, who suffers from a range of health problems but now describes her life as “harmonised”.
“When I first met Open Doors, I was homeless, in prostitution and smoking crack cocaine,” says J. “I hadn’t eaten in a day. Within two weeks [they] got me a flat and I’m still living there today. Most organisations that deal with prostitution or drugs, they judge you, but here they don’t.”
The stories poured out, many accompanied by tears. It was early June and a group of sex workers, outreach and health workers had gathered at a meeting called by local watchdogs, Hackney Health Watch to discuss Open Doors, the borough’s longstanding NHS support service for sex workers. The stories were being told because things are about the change for the worse.
A joint effort by the council and the police will see women in the borough increasingly criminalised. The head of one sex workers support NGO compared this to the authorities’ actions before the Ipswich murders. Things have reached crisis point. Open Doors has been asked to participate in enforcing the law and the service’s long-time manager has resigned in anger.
The criminalisation is in stark contrast to recommendations put forward by the Home Affairs Committee, which released its interim report last week, calling for sex workers in England and Wales be decriminalised. “The Home Office should immediately change existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and brothel-keeping laws allow sex workers to share premises,” reads the report.
Back at the meeting in Hackney, things were fraught. Open Doors has, say its service users, saved lives among Hackney’s sex working population, many of whom exist at the intersection of multiple fracture lines: the danger of outdoor sex work, drug use, homelessness, poor health, poverty, insecure immigration status, domestic violence, stigma. Operating from Homerton Hospital, Open Doors supports people with their health by understanding that illness doesn’t emerge in a vacuum. Dealing with things like housing and legal issues is a daily part of its work.
However, Open Doors says that recent changes in procedure mean sex workers are no longer referred straight to the service but, instead, passed through gatekeepers via a Street Users Outreach Meeting (SUOM). Crucially, SUOMs include police officers, meaning anyone discussed will now be known to the authorities. Until recently, Open Doors refused to be part of the SUOM group but the service has now been told its participation is not optional. Essentially the line is that, to ensure continued funding, Open Doors must enmesh itself with the criminal justice system.
Georgina Perry, Open Doors’ service manager, has been at the helm for 13 years. Two weeks ago, she handed in her notice, saying she is unable to comply with the council’s demands.
“I couldn’t stay in Open Doors and work for a service that is compliant in enforcement,” says Perry. “Not when all the evidence tells us how dangerous enforcement is for vulnerable sex workers.”
Perry believes that the council’s strategy for Open Doors is part of a wider move to shift “undesirables” from Hackney. As the borough becomes gentrified, penalisation of the homeless and outdoor sex workers has increased. Last year, Hackney council’s plans to issue rough sleepers with court action and fines of up to £1,000 was only quashed after a campaign by homelessness groups and local residents. This year, once again, the homeless – and now sex workers – appear to be in the firing line.
A spokesperson for Hackney Council told VICE that the SUOM meetings do not constitute an “enforcement panel”, as Perry describes it. However, Open Doors, they said, is expected to cooperate with the police.
“It is not a contradiction that a health service is asked to participate in managing issues around street based sex working,” a spokesperson said. “The Council and police work with a variety of health services to address anti-social behaviour, including mental health and substance misuse issues.
“We would expect Open Doors to work in partnership with the police, Council and other agencies to share information so that all partners can provide help for sex workers when and where necessary. Enforcement action is a last resort if there are cases of anti-social behaviour that can have an impact on the lives of local residents.”
There are questions over whether this is the best approach. Since the Anti Social Behaviour Act was enacted in 2014, Hackney Police has used its dispersal powers against sex workers working outdoors. Ian Simpkins, Hackney’s Safer Neighbourhoods and Partnership Chief Inspector, told VICE the power is used “in relation to street based sex working where antisocial behaviour is being caused by sex workers and/or their potential clients.”
But Kirstie Douse, of drugs, law and human rights charity Release is concerned about the ramifications of criminalising sex workers in this way. Dispersal orders can be handed out on the basis that behaviour is likely to contribute to antisocial behaviour, without anything having actually occurred. Breaching an order carries a maximum sentence of three months in prison. However, a lack of safeguards, Douse says, could see it being abused, “especially in relation to certain groups including sex workers”.
Douse also raised concerns about Community Protection Notices (CPN), telling VICE she’s seen examples of the penalty being handed out in a way that is “potentially unlawful”. For instance, its terms – that the behaviour ‘is having a detrimental effect of a persistent nature, on the quality of life of those in the locality’ – may not have been met.
Alex Feis-Bryce, Chief Executive of sex worker support organisation National Ugly Mugs (NUM) and member of the National Police Working Group on sex work, said:
“The approach in Hackney is similar to that in the lead up to the Ipswich murders of sex workers. Metropolitan Police Officers should not need to be reminded that the tragic murder of Mariana Popov in Redbridge in 2013 came at a time when enforcement was so aggressive that women were actually running to hide from the police. At the time Mariana was working alone to avoid police detection and working later than usual to pay off a fine.”
Perry is quick to draw a distinction between working with enforcement – as the service has done for years – and being part of enforcement. Anonymity for service-users is vital. When your life is this marginal, authority is rarely on your side. A support service that fails to offer confidentiality to people who may not always operate within the law can no longer claim to be impartial.
“Hackney used to be held up as a national exemplar of how to support sex workers with complex needs,” Perry says. “They’ve set the clock back ten years.”
Additional reporting by Sophie Hemery