Cheese sandwiches wrapped and bagged, I’m outside. I’m quite new to all this. One25’s van has been cruising the city by night since 1996. In that time, they’ve offered care and support to hundreds of street sex workers. Their drop-in has been operating since 1997. I arrived on the scene less than two years ago as part of a dedicated team of around 120 volunteers.
The rain shows no sign of easing up as we edge the van past a flashy sports car, parked in the narrow lane behind the Grosvenor Centre. The box in the back is stuffed with hats, gloves and scarves. We’re out of umbrellas. You have to be desperate to work the street on a night like tonight.
“She’s starving and crying with the cold.”
A woman gets into the back of the van. She says she’s starving and pleads for socks. Crying with the cold. Her canvas shoes are wet through and there are no socks on board tonight. My co-worker makes hot chocolate. My soggy boots don’t seem so bad all of a sudden. Another girl rattles the door. She’s stick-thin. I could probably encircle her upper arm with my thumb and index finger. She won’t give a name. Avoids eye contact. Doesn’t join the conversation. She takes food and melts into the darkness. We don’t see her again.
I lived more than half my life in rural Wiltshire. Inner-city Bristol was a massive culture shock when I arrived. I didn’t get it at first. The school I worked in had a sign outside. Kerb crawlers will be prosecuted. I still didn’t get it. About 8 o’clock one morning I was walking into work. One of the parents – a big man– ran past me like a bat out of hell. He started effing and blinding at a woman who was getting into a car. She was tiny. A puff of wind could’ve taken her out. I remember she had glasses. Held together with sticky tape. He called her all the names under the sun. It’s always the woman who gets the blame. The car drove off.
One of the scariest places in the city is underneath the motorway. It’s full of shadows. We pull up sharply. The driver’s been doing this for years. The rest of us didn’t even see the woman. She makes conversation while I make tea. She points out the description of her most recent assailant on the ‘Ugly Mugs’ board. She’s quite matter-of-fact. Makes it sound as if it’s normal to be beaten, raped and robbed. I guess it is in the world she’s inhabiting at the moment but ‘normal’ doesn’t mean ‘okay’.
I’ve not seen the woman in the red coat before. She says she used to be a regular. She’s clean now. Got her kids back and everything. But it’s tough living on benefits. She’s doing this to buy Christmas presents for the kids.
A woman got on the van a few months ago, not far from where we are now. She had a can in her hand. Refused point blank to part with it; “No. I’m not leaving it. He’ll have it if I do. My bloke. He’s over there. Keeping an eye on me. He cares about me. Really he does.”
“If it were all sunshine and roses there’d be no need for One25…”
In a society that chooses to criminalise addiction, instead of dealing with the pain that causes it, this is the inevitable result. To add insult to injury, we blame the women for surviving by the only means open to them. 99% of the women working the streets of Bristol are addicted to Class A drugs or alcohol. Or both. 100% of those receiving intensive casework support from One25 were neglected or abused as children. If it were all sunshine and roses there’d be no need for One25. I could watch Supersize vs Superskinny every night. I could be blissfully ignorant. But I don’t want to give the impression it’s a hopeless situation. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is possible to get free. To ‘step away from the streets’. Last year, 45 women did just that with the support of One25.
We’re heading back on our third or fourth circuit when I see something that breaks me. I thought I’d caught a glimpse of her earlier, but she faded into the shadows before I could be sure. I hoped I was wrong. There’s no doubt this time. Yesterday we were stacking cupboards in the drop-in together. Discussing her progress in recovery. Tonight she’s back on the street. She won’t come onto the van. I’m having a bad day, is all she’ll say.
The quality of heartbreak that comes from seeing somebody you care about relapse is like no other. But three months from now all this will be forgotten. She and I will be walking on fire to raise money for One25. So will the woman who cried because there were no socks. We don’t know that yet. All we have is hope.