Spotlight: A Way Out

The community grant partnerships (CGP) is a strategic initiative to help us shift power for grant decision making to local community organisations, the majority of which are led by and for women. Smallwood provides a block grant including overhead costs, an operational toolkit and evaluation support to the partner organisation who then award grants to individual women integrated with their specialist support services.

Our latest CGP spotlight article features an interview with A Way Out’s CEO, Kay Nicolson, and Operations Manager, Sue Willoughby.

Can you introduce A Way Out?
Kay: A Way Out is an outreach and prevention charity, working across Middlesbrough, Stockton, Hartlepool, Redcar, and Cleveland with our clients predominantly around the Stockton and Middlesbrough areas. We look to engage, empower and equip vulnerable and excluded women, families and young people, particularly young women, to live lives free from harm, abuse and exploitation and to reduce life limiting choices and behaviour.

Our service users include people who have issues with substance abuse, sex work, homelessness, the criminal justice system, trauma, and victims of abuse and exploitation. We work with families, girls and women through a number of projects across a broad range of intervention areas and we have an in-house psychotherapist too.

When did your relationship with Smallwood begin and what drew you to becoming a CGP?
We were successful in applying for the Women’s First Fund in 2019 which went towards the vital work that we do in the Liberty project for women in survival sex work. What drew us to Smallwood was that our values and ethos are aligned and also the flexibility of the funding and the fact that we can access you to discuss any issues. That’s something we really value and that’s been embedded since we’ve been a CGP.

Kay: We’ve had some fantastic outcomes and the flexibility of this approach is really appreciated and stands out in the current climate. We are looking to engage with funders on this basis across the board but it’s not always the case.

A core part of your work is the Liberty project. Can you tell us more about it?
Sue: The Liberty project began in 2002 and it was the foundation project for the organisation. The woman who founded our charity met a 15 year-old girl who was selling sex on the street and the project has grown considerably since. We’ve got an amazing team of women who work for us who are able to engage with those that are most vulnerable, who are engaged in on-street and survival sex work, and are being or have been sexually exploited.

A lot of the women we work with have a dual-diagnosis, so they might come to us with a dependency on substances and significant mental health problems but that’s in addition to other issues such as homelessness, family relationship breakdown, domestic abuse, or involvement in criminal exploitation.

Our range of interventions is broad and an important part of our programme is that we are trauma-informed, something we really do live and breathe in our organisation. We do daytime outreach and evening outreach which is an amazing opportunity to meet our women where they are stood and we can make sure they have up to date safety plans, condoms, drink, and that they benefit from knowing that somebody actually cares about them.

If they go missing we might be the last person that had contact with them and we can help with reporting that. Being on the street is absolutely vital and that’s why we are so grateful for the contribution from Smallwood towards our new van.

COVID has also influenced how we engage with our women. We now have very few office-based appointments and we do a lot more walk and talk sessions where we meet women at their homes or community venues. This has been fabulous as you don’t have that uncomfortable quietness that you might have in a one-to-one session where they feel all the focus is on them. When you’re walking you can talk about what you see around you, there’s a lot more stimulus and our women have really appreciated it.

We also do doorstep check-ins that are often the same length of time as the walk and talk sessions so it’s been amazing to incorporate new ways of working. We have more telephone appointments now and we have more text engagements which works really well with our women who are at risk of being sexually exploited because they are often not in a safe space to have a conversation.

We also give out well-being packs and we promote National Ugly Mugs, which is a nationwide project that shares information around incidents that sex workers have experienced, such as people who are going area to area causing harm. We also work very closely with Cleveland Police’s district licensing unit and lots of organisations across Middlesbrough. So Liberty is really embedded in the areas it works with and has a very good working model which is tried, tested and evidence based.

We are very mindful of the privileged position we are in to be able to speak with the women and also with the amazing impact we have, like purchasing basics such as new clean clothing and underwear or clothing that is suitable for the weather. One lady hadn’t bathed or had a haircut for 10 years because of issues such as trust and low self-esteem. With the help of the funding, she got some nice toiletries that she chose, bath towels and clean bedding and we liaised with a local hairdresser to give her that personal care.

The grants have been absolutely amazing as they have provided positive, often live-changing interventions at a time when the options for these women are extremely limited. They have made the difference between someone being homeless and selling sex to survive, to having somewhere to live and being able to engage in a positively structured way to secure their tenancy and get help with their mental health.

Kay: The integrity with which this organisation works is disproving the theory that these people are hard to reach. The truth is that these people are finding statutory services and standard ways of engaging and intervening with people hard to reach. We need to get that message out more broadly.

What level of support do you see available to your beneficiaries in the areas that you work in and what are the barriers?
As an area, I think we do some amazing work. We’ve got some agencies working together in a real solution-focused way and there’s some really proactive projects around that are working with street homelessmess and addictions.

However, I think the real challenge is the general stigma of sex work. It’s really difficult for women to still disclose themselves and there’s still repercussions with other organisations when they do. The main reason for this is that the women feel they would be judged, but also lots of these women wouldn’t actually describe themselves as sex workers. They see themselves as women who sometimes sell sex. That’s only part of them and they’re a whole person, so describing them as sex workers is doing them a disservice and that really is a barrier. Women have lots of roles in society: they are mums, grandmothers, sisters and this is how we demonise and label women when they do things that mainstream society doesn’t deem as acceptable. That has to change as there are lots of drivers to why women sell sex.

Kay: From a broader point of view, this year we have seen some interesting activity in the political sphere around violence against women and girls, Rape Review and there’s a consultation on Sex for Rent pending. It’s certainly galvanised the local police and we’re starting to see engagement around adult sexual exploitation which is building some traction now.

I think we are hampered by the fact that we don’t have a statutory definition around sexual expolitation, although there is some political will with the likes of MP Jess Phillips getting behind it. Then, we’ve got a project called Stage which has an influence group focusing on adult sexual exploitation and we have a group locally which is led by the police and ourselves to explore that further and push for that statutory defnition. It feels really encouraging but there’s so much work to do because it’s a hidden harm and not easily captured.

At the moment we’ve got a big agenda around violence against women and girls and agencies are talking to each other about sexual violence at the same level as domestic abuse now.

For ourselves, we’ve got a demand that we can’t always respond to even though we’ve got lots of creative ways around how we can work with people. There’s also the short-term nature of funding, although there’s some traction now with some funders potentially looking at 10 year and 3 year partnerships which is fantastic. I think in Stockton, the local authorities are really progressive in finding strategic partnerships and funding that has a longer-term approach and also working alongside charities where there are gaps in service provision.

What’s the best way people can support A Way Out?
We are looking to galvanise a whole system approach which includes looking for ambassadors in the wider public and political sphere to progress the rights of women to live free from abuse and exploitation, address gender-based poverty and call out for an equal and fairer society.

We are appealing to large organisations, smaller businesses and micro businesses to think about corporate social responsibility and wanting to spread the word with regards to the issues of violence against women and girls and to help take away the stigma from women who are in situations where they are selling sex on the street and potentially being sexually exploited.

Individuals can help us with donations, food and clothing and we are also reaching out to people who feel that they can volunteer for us, whether that’s on an outreach basis or providing some mentoring and support to our younger people.

Sue: We have a website and social media channels so people can follow us on those to support what we are doing.


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