London

Program successfully houses homeless women caught in survival sex work

A London program is helping women who are caught in a cycle of survival sex work find secure and stable homes and, in some cases, get out of that type of work all together.

In 3 years, the Street Level Women at Risk program put three-quarters of participants in stable housing

The Street Level Women At Risk (SLWAR) program helps women who are experiencing homelessness and are engaged in street involved sex work to secure permanent housing with supports. (CBC)

A London program is helping women who are caught in a cycle of survival sex work find secure and stable homes and, in some cases, get out of that type of work altogether.

The Street Level Women at Risk program (SLWAR), which started three years ago, placed all 59 women who came through the program in homes. From that total number, 44 women were able to stay housed, according to a report released by the city this week.

The program helps women who are forced to trade sex for basic necessities, such as food, clothing or a roof over their heads. This is referred to as survival sex work.

"When you are homeless, it affects you mentally, which makes you run for the drugs and then you end up doing sex work just to find a place to stay for the night," said Sue MacIntosh, a volunteer with the Women's Advisory Group who experienced survival sex work.  

Sue MacIntosh is a volunteer with the Women's Advisory Group, which informs and provides input to SLWAR. The group includes women with lived experiences, such as MacIntosh who experienced survival sex work for 18 years. (Allison Devereaux/CBC)

In an interview on the CBC's Afternoon Drive, MacIntosh said that survival sex work becomes a "circular trap," which in her case lasted 18 years. 

"You can never get enough money to get your own place because your money's going on the drugs and the drugs are keeping you sane because you don't have nowhere to live and you don't have nowhere to live because you're too busy doing sex work," she explained.

"It's just a never-ending trap that you can't you can't get out of," she added. 

At the time of MacIntosh's experience, programs like SLWAR didn't exist.

"I had to literally claw my way out," she said, adding that she eventually found a 12-step program that gradually allowed her to get out of that lifestyle. 

Now, as a volunteer with the advisory group that provides SLWAR with input on lived experiences, MacIntosh says she wouldn't trade the situation she was caught in. 

"If it changes the lives of even one woman, was it worth it all? Yeah, absolutely." 

SLWAR was developed with the help of women with lived experiences of homelessness and street-involved sex work, London service providers and evidence-informed practices used in other places. 

The program is designed to help women find housing first and then offer support for any other issues, such as addiction and escaping violence.

Participants are also given any subsidies needed to pay rent and receive coordinated referrals for long-term well-being and community integration.

Other key findings in the report: 

  • 65 per cent of women decreased their involvement in sex work, while 20 per cent stopped all together.
  • 38 per cent of women decreased their amount of substance use, while 14 per cent stopped using substances.
  • 53 per cent of women did not receive any new criminal charges.
  • 57 per cent of women increased their contact with their children.
  • 47 per cent of women experienced improved mental health, while 50 per cent experienced improved physical health.
  • 71 per cent of women experienced an improved quality of life.

With files from the CBC's Chris dela Torre

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