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Sleeping ‘rough’ for charity


fundraising sleep out, homeless womenA Coventry charity’s sponsored sleep out raised awareness of the needs of street-based sex workers.

I recently took part in 12-hour sponsored sleep out.

It was in aid of Kairos Women Working Together (WWT), a Coventry-based charity that supports women who are risk of or subject to sexual exploitation, including those involved in street-based sex work and those aspiring to leave it.

Like many small charities, Kairos relies on fundraising in order to boost revenue and enable the continuation of vital services.

A sponsored sleep out, an approximation of ‘rough sleeping’, was chosen as a fundraising event because of its significance and relevance to the lives of the women Kairos supports.

There is a strong correlation between street-based sex work and homelessness, as research by Kairos and by national organisations confirms.

And one recent report by the charity Brighter Futures saw such repeated links that it has suggested that ‘street sex work is how women sleep rough’. An earlier report, by Crisis in 2006, had described the ‘unwanted sexual partnerships’ homeless women are forced into in order to survive.

So on 24 August a group of 11 women – staff, volunteers and friends of Kairos WWT – congregated in a city centre car park, each with nothing but a sleeping bag and a cardboard box to put between them and the cracked, bug-riddled tarmac.

Packed solidly, sometimes restrictively, into layers and layers of clothing, most of us were nervous, in anticipation of what a night spent outdoors would entail.

Bolstered and galvanised by our cause, and by a wish to honour our many and generous sponsors, we gamely bedded down and saw the night through in our individual ways.

It would, of course, be arrogant and insulting to suggest that one night participating in a structured and safe event such as this is in any way akin to the reality, and uncertainty, that homeless women face.

Yet experiencing, albeit in a manufactured way, something of the dangers and consequences of rough sleeping was a potent way of raising our collective consciousness; to give sight, sound and actuality to what may previously have been only words.

For myself, ‘sleep out’ became something of a misnomer as I spent the whole night awake, my head snapping up at every unidentified sound, my bones grating through the vastly insufficient cardboard box I was lying on.

The initial camaraderie of our shared venture; playing games, talking and laughing, slowly ebbed away as people fell asleep or fell silent. What I recall most as I remained awake was how drawn out, lonely and somehow strangely magnified everything became.

Every sound seemed so loud, so important; perhaps it was my notoriously overactive imagination but the expectation that one of those sounds at one point might signal harm meant I couldn’t – or wouldn’t – let myself fall asleep.

No matter that we were locked in a car park, in a group, with professionals who had performed risk assessments.

If this, but stripped of companionship and relative comfort, was my reality I genuinely believe I would struggle to survive.

The pain of an old running injury was also exacerbated by a night in proximity to cold concrete. No position gave relief and by 6am there was a distinct limp to my walk, and a dull ache which lasted for days.

This lack of comfort – and this inability to actually approximate anything like comfort – was something remarked upon by many of the participants.

Having an injury, or the aches of age, or insufficient bedding, while sleeping rough must be so psychologically damaging.

My experience brought sharply into focus just how desperate many women sleeping rough must be for a good night of sleep, and what this may force them to do to obtain it.

Yet the sense of vulnerability was what I felt most keenly – something I shared with fellow team members.

Reflecting on her personal safety, Kate told me that “as a team, we had safety in numbers, as well as the added advantage of being locked in a gated area, in the middle of summer…privacy and safety are things I take for granted, and if I had been sleeping alone somewhere, there is no way I would have been able to let myself fall asleep and put myself at risk.”.

Female rough sleepers are often subject to violence and rape, either as a consequence of their vulnerability on the streets or as a consequence of their engagement in sex work.

The reports of the rape of a rough sleeper in Oxford just days after our event was a timely and sharp reminder of the vulnerabilities and atrocities faced by women who are already excluded from society, or traumatised and damaged by their experiences with poor mental health, motherhood, drug abuse, alcoholism, or violence and exploitation.

Female rough sleepers are too often hidden from view.

They do not form part of our conception of homelessness as their particular vulnerabilities make them less likely to sleep in plain view, and so they will not turn up in a local authority’s rough sleeper counts.

Equally, research suggests that many sex workers sleep at clients’ houses during the day, or at crack-houses, or on friend’s sofas. In this way they are not looked for, and so are not recognised as ‘homeless’ in the typical sense.

Street-based sex workers are often out working at night, not curled up in a shop doorway at the prescribed time when local authorities perform their counts, or when local charities provide their outreach.

And so they shade past policy makers and those who commission services. Their particular needs and increased marginalisation due to their status as a ‘prostitute’ means that they fall through the cracks made by the erroneous way homelessness in women is conceptualised and catered for.

Kairos WWT’s project manager Lucia Leon told me that, as well as highlighting how ‘exposing’ the experience of sleeping rough must be, the event made her realise how “just one night without quality sleep can impact on your overall sense of well-being.”

The consequences to health of prolonged homelessness are, of course, dire. The charity Crisis currently puts the average life expectancy of a homeless woman at 43.

Lucia’s thoughts on the event touched upon another important issue: the detrimental effects of homelessness on physical and mental well-being.

Health, which can only come from adequate housing, is the foundation upon which a life is rebuilt.

Sex workers who wish to resolve life-controlling issues or exit sex work have little chance of succeeding without access to appropriate housing-related assistance.

In a recent interview with Women’s Views on News, Lucia highlighted the lack of, but pressing need for, crisis and specialist accommodation for sex workers in Coventry.

Precisely because of their complex needs and chaotic lifestyles sex workers are often denied access to refuges or hostels, as they are not equipped to cope with or support their needs.

This is something I witnessed first hand while I was helping with refuge referrals for a domestic violence charity, something which led me to question who helped these women, and where they would go if they needed safety. A question which led to my involvement with Kairos WWT.

National research from Homeless Link supports Lucia’s assertion: their 2013 Survey of Needs and Provision expressed concern that ‘only one surveyed project provided targeted services for sex workers in 2013…[down from]…3 per cent in the previous year’.

Research also indicates that women in mixed sex hostels are often preyed upon and sexually exploited – essentially singled out by men for their ‘earning potential’. A horrific situation, but one that particularly highlights the need for women who are attempting to exit sex work, or need help obtaining positive support-based outcomes, to have access to safe, women-only accommodation.

The Kairos WWT sleep out, and the awareness raising that is naturally garnered through sponsorship raising, I hope went some way to highlighting the need for greater housing-based support for women in Coventry, and to highlighting more tangibly the problems faced every day by the women Kairos support.

Lucia summed up the event by saying: “Working for Kairos WWT is a daily affirmation of the strength and resilience of women.

“I’m proud of the team of volunteers who came together for the night to not only to raise funds for Kairos WWT but to raise awareness of one of the issues that affects too many of our service users.

“I’d like to thank all those who sponsored the team, and contributors from the local community who helped make our experience slightly more comfortable.”

The event raised a total of £1,134.80 for Kairos WWT, a fantastic achievement by all involved and which will help with the continuation of vital work with vulnerable, marginalised and excluded women in Coventry.

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