Outreach to outdoor/street based sex workersΒΆ

First, they may not need or want your help. What you see happening and your interpretation could be very different from their reality. This still doesn’t mean that they want or need help (either yours or anyone else’s).

Some people enjoy the street-based economy lifestyle and are happy there. We need to respect that this can be a valid lifestyle choice for people if they are consensually there and happy. It’s also true that non-consensual things happen in that lifestyle (as in any lifestyle) and just like in every other lifestyle, some people definitely need help and want to change how they are existing in the world.

Generally speaking, the woman or any person who works in the street-based economy is VERY cautious and skittish when new people enter their lives, particularly those trying to offer help. So often, the helpers cause more issues for the person or they start to help and then disappear. This leaves the person feeling even more vulnerable and less trusting of new people that might actually be able to help.

People who work and/or live on the streets learn many different survival strategies. Some of these, while being good-intentioned and well-meaning individuals, are scammers. While not every person living/working on the streets relies on this strategy, be aware that it is a possibility. If this does happen, do not take it personally. This may be their only means of surviving at that moment. Be sure to know your boundaries but not to mistrust everyone just because they are on the streets. Many will feel guilty about this behavior if they manage to get out of survival mode. But this is only one example of the many different survival strategies. Every person has their own way of surviving. Be compassionate of their strategies.

So with the above in mind, determine what you have to offer, both personally and organizationally. This may be simple things like making telephone calls. Also, you can research what organizations serve the people of the street-based economy in your area, what shelters are available, what food banks are open and when, what places offer hot meals, showers, etc. Sometimes just listening is all the help someone needs. Be clear with yourself about what you can offer, what resources you have available and what you are willing to do. Set firm boundaries about what you are not willing to do before actually trying to help.

Let’s move on to some specifics. When you think you (or your group) are able and ready to reach out personally, here are some specific things to keep in mind:

  • Your personal safety always comes first. Be mindful that you may be entering into a lifestyle unlike your own and that it works very differently than you may be used to. Be alert, aware and attentive to your surroundings.
  • Be slow and patient with people as you approach. You have to build their trust before you begin talking about the possibility of help. You could start by walking past them to say hello and making sure they know you are there to stay (that you aren’t Police and that you don’t plan on calling the Police, etc.) You don’t have to be blunt and up front about these things. Go slow. Don’t be in a hurry.
  • If you see a need (or possible need) and you are able to, give them baby wipes, condoms, lotion, tissues, cigarettes, coffee or types of toiletries you get from a hotel. Just little things that show you care. This helps build trust. Don’t just leave them on the street hoping they will see them. After you have made a connection with the person, give the items to them. But don’t force them to take them! Here is a great example of how to approach it: “I have this box of stuff. I don’t know what to do with it all. If you would like to go through it and see if there is anything you need, please help yourself.”
  • Don’t lie to them.
  • After you feel like you’ve built up a relationship with them, you should have a better sense of their situation. Then you can research possible things that might help and offer these things as appropriate.
  • Be patient. Chances are this won’t happen overnight. But it might, so be prepared. It is not uncommon for street-based workers to have justified trust issues. Remember, building trust takes time. Even though YOU know you are there with the best of intentions, give us the space to trust you when WE are ready.

If you feel being personally involved and possibly becoming a friend is not an option, there are still things you can do, and here are some suggestions:

  • Reach out to and connect with local organizations that do outreach to people who are in the street-based economy. Make sure their practices and policies are useful and are not a let’s-yank-the-person-from-their-life-and-try-to-give-them-a-whole-new-one-overnight kind of organization. They are easily recognizable since they tend to be the flashiest organizations with the most money. The organizations you want are full of people who come from or are still involved with the street-based economy. They are working toward making life safer for all people that are street-based. Make sure they understand sex worki or that you are able to help them understand sex worki.
  • Do I need to call the Police? Generally, involving the Police into a sex worker’s life is not helpful. There are of course exceptions to this rule.

If you come across a street-based worker who is in an obviously dangerous situation and feel law enforcment needs to be involved, first try asking if that is what the worker wants. Only do this if it is safe for you to do so. Remember, what may seem like a dangerous situation to you may be a typical day of street life for the worker. If at all possible, let them make the choice of when and how to bring in the Police.

Lastly, always be mindful of your own safety and boundaries!

This was written by Tara and Liz.