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Fears for lives of Sheffield sex workers on drugs

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It’s 10.46pm. A young woman with a thick, black fringe hails us down from the corner where she’s standing.

“I’ve been waiting for yous lot,” she grins with mock annoyance as she opens the sliding door and climbs aboard.

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Her arrival brings a fresh sight of purple-cold hands; her first request, like several other women before her, is for some gloves.

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She rubs her jean-clad legs to warm up, then starts trawling through the plastic-packaged sandwiches, Pot Noodles and biscuits stored in the metal sink.

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She needn’t ask permission first and within seconds, she’s munching.

It’s early March, and I’m volunteering for the night with the Sheffield Working Women’s Opportunities Project (SWWOP).

The charity operates a women-only outreach van that laps the city’s red-light district - or ‘beat’ - three nights a week, distributing food, hot drinks, condoms and clean drug paraphernalia.

Serving tonight are paid staffer Alison Sharp, a motherly insurance broker turned drugs worker who joined the charity just before Christmas, and volunteer Sara Allison, a geriatrician by day and known on the van as ‘Posh Doc’.

Their lively welcomes and casual chat - “Busy tonight? How long you gonna have to stay out?” - combined with the vehicle’s blowing heater and squidgy benches, make for a safe space where women can come for light relief, serious advice, or just to sit in silence - whatever they want.

As she chews on her sandwich under the vehicle’s bluish-white lighting, I offer the girl a hot drink. I don’t catch her name; she’s busy requesting works from Alison and I’m hesitant to interrupt.

With any concern successfully disguised, Alison unlocks a drawer and offers a packet of sterile foil instead of a needle.

Apparently it’s safer, but the young woman refuses.

“Do you know about this fentanyl-laced heroin?” Alison asks calmly as she hands over a one-mil needle without protest.

She points to a poster on the noticeboard detailing the killer gear that’s currently circulating.

Next to it is an email from the dodgy punter information-sharing network Ugly Mugs UK, describing a local rapist.

We’ve been weaving slowly between the redbrick Victorian warehouses of Sheffield’s industrial estates for just over two hours.

Neepsend and Shalesmoor buzz with white vans and traders by day. In the still darkness, though, the only signs of life are the women - who wander several buildings apart from each

other - and the messy brows of weeds lining the pavements.

Sightings of the odd car or hunched male stature darting between the streetlights bring no comfort.

After the girl leaves, hands gloved, Alison takes notes about her as Posh Doc drives on.

They discuss her swollen leg, like that of another twenty-something who’d climbed in earlier on crutches.

“She’s got a DVT she won’t get sorted,” Alison had explained.

Deep veinthrombosis is common among users who inject.

“She’s going to die soon, isn’t she?” Posh Doc added resignedly.

“Yeah, we’ve got a few like that.”

By the shift’s end at 11.30pm, we’ve served roll-ups and stodgy food (that’s all

they tend to want) to eight women.

The charity currently has 150 sex workers on its books; it sees 40 regularly.

In 2016, manager Sali Harwood reported a “massive rise” in new or returning sex workers, blaming austerity measures like benefit sanctions.

Between June and August that year, the number of new and returning women had increased from the expected 12 during a three-month period to 51.

Two returners tonight were Diane and Linda, both forty-something and almost impeccably dressed.

Diane climbed in an hour before Linda, wearing a Zara-style slouch coat and knee-high boots.

She’d been off the beat for two years, serving time then living with her boyfriend. But he’d been sent down today, and the

tenancy rights had gone with him to prison. She was now staying on Linda’s sofa.

“I don’t want to see Sali, I was doing so well,” she exclaimed with relief when she saw the manager of 20 years wasn’t on board, although she knew Sali wouldn’t

judge her. “I’m not being greedy this time round. I get what I need and go home. It’s not worth your life.”

I ruminated on the sad fact that she was risking her life even by working just long enough for one hit, but said nothing.

“I take enough to knock me out. Otherwise I wake up at three and do something crazy. I find myself out here at 6am,” she chuckled.

Alison smiled, then invited Diane to the charity’s office-hours drop-in, which offers support five days a week for exiting sex work.

She handed over a business card detailing the opening hours and address, apologising for its tea stains.

“So this is what you think of me!” Diane teased with a snort.

The next day, I take up the invitation on Diane’s behalf and visit the drop-in near Shalesmoor.

I’m soon in the car with Alison en route to meet some former street workers for their weekly activity. This time, it’s Hollywood Bowl.

“They feel [SWWOP] is the only place where they can come and be themselves, where they won’t be judged,” explains Alison.

One of the project’s “best successes”, the loud and boisterous Mary, later confirms this, as we sit by the bowling alley eating nachos.

“It’s what keeps me clean,” she says, adding with a smile.

“When else would any of us get to go to Doncaster Zoo?”

Then, more seriously: “I couldn’t go back out, it’d kill me. There’s been that many girls who’ve died. You don’t hear about them, but it’s part of Sheffield’s culture.”

Mary found herself involved in sex work having been sexually abused by her brother as a child.

She first encountered the 'Johnny Van' in 1999, seven years after it was started.

After getting clean once, she stayed out of sex work for 12 years, but when her partner died, she found herself back on the beat.

“People think it’s a choice: ‘They take drugs, they must enjoy it’,” she says.

“Most of us girls take the drugs to numb it. I can’t work without being off my head.”

The charity helped her to get clean again in 2013, organising for her to move out of an area she described as Sheffield’s 'drug central', and referring her for substance misuse and sexual abuse therapy.

“They’re just a friend,” she says of SWWOP staff.

“I find it hard to make friends. It’s a trust thing, once someone’s betrayed you.”

At that moment, Alison approaches to refund her bus fare - another of the organisation’s policies Mary glows about.

“Although,” she laughs, “I’d come without it.”