Homeless, Learning Disabilities and Selling Sex

Oct 10, 2022

Exploring the multiple disadvantages experienced by women who sell sex 

What we know through our research:  

You’ve probably heard of the term multiple disadvantage, maybe you’ve experienced it yourself, but what does that look like in the context of women that are selling sex? 

Through primary research into our initial assessments of the women that we support through our Beyond Support Service, we have been able to draw conclusions as to how multiple disadvantage plays out for women who sell sex. Our in-house Research and Impact Team, alongside collaborators, identified that women selling survival sex can experience up to 18 different support needs; based on data from 2016 to 2020.   

On average, women we support have a combination of 8 different support needs of those 18 at any one time, including mental health issues, difficulty processing feelings, abuse and trauma, substance misuse, difficulty with support service access, challenges with employment and education, financial issues as well as difficulty with housing.  

Homelessness specifically can be a key barrier that inhibits progress in other areas. The concept of ‘Housing first’ is a widely accepted notion that services can’t support someone until they have adequate shelter.  But with specialist trauma informed holistic support and via collaboration with multiple partners, such as the MARAC-style Tower Hamlets Prostitution Partnership that we lead on, women can be supported with all their needs.  

During 2020-21, 36% of women on the caseload of Beyond the Street’s London project, Door of Hope, reported having a disability. Of these women, two-thirds (67%) reported that their disability was behavioral and emotional.  

For a woman facing multiple disadvantages such as both homelessness and learning disability, the challenges they face, as well as stigma and experience of being misunderstood, are likely to compound.

With multiple disadvantage often also comes multiple stigma. 

Both learning disability and the sale of sex to survive receive stigma from professionals and the public. For example, people with a mild or moderate learning disability may be mislabelled as lazy, naughty, or easily frustrated when they were at school and throughout their lives. 

For those with milder learning disabilities, these tend to be less recognisable, however are often over-represented in homelessness services. 

One thing to note is that, although very similar, learning disabilities differ from specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia or autism, as learning disabilities can affect IQ, whereas learning difficulties do not necessarily impair intelligence, although still present long-lasting challenges of their own. This nuanced difference is not always understood. 

Women who sell sex to afford things like rent or basic necessities have also been found to be mislabelled as ‘difficult’ or ‘chaotic’ by support services. This is due to several factors related to the multiple disadvantages that they experience. One such factor is the effects of being in a state of survival, where trauma and stress negatively impact, among many other things, the memory. So, living in a state of ‘fight or flight’ can pose challenges for attending appointments with health or support services, for example. 

These are just two of the many aspects of the multiple disadvantages experienced by some women (homelessness and learning disability). 

Women with no home that struggle with learning disability are amongst the most vulnerable in our society and have an increased likelihood of resorting to selling sex to survive 

What are Beyond the Streets doing to alleviate the stress on this area of need

-We work in partnership with London Borough of Tower Hamlets, including feeding into the borough’s VAWG Strategic Partnership and coordinating the local prostitution MARAC, and other relevant agencies such as drug and alcohol services, homeless services and other specialists.

-Our team in East London has extensive experience in delivering trauma-informed services to women, as well as experience in probation and housing. Women who are hidden homeless come to our attention through our twice weekly outreach sessions in the borough. From here we encourage women to engage with our trained Women’s Support Workers. Many women are not in receipt of benefits or engaging with other services. We can provide a warm meal, a phone for contact, help them look at how safe their housing is and conduct safety planning. We have safeguarding oversight for many women who are not engaging with other services, so can identify when they are at increased risk of harm.

-For women in hostels and emergency accommodation, our support workers can advocate for them to move to more suitable accommodation and increase their safety. We also accompany women to meetings including drug treatment and recovery and mental health support. We provide a safe space to process all that is going in their lives, talk about trauma, learn grounding techniques and safety planning around all aspects of their life. We provide women with a space to cook, shower and wash their clothes, which they can have limited opportunity to do in their accommodation. Per year, we would expect to support 100 women via outreach and 45-50 women on caseload 

Top tips for support services (provided by Homeless Link)  

-Keep things short and use plain language and visuals (pictures)  

-Push through the initial no from statutory services – often things aren’t neat.

-Use crises as opportunities (health, prison, safeguarding) – might be a good chance to get assessments done if substances are out of their system.

-Stay curious and compassionate and look between the lines in behaviour – ‘when you say that, it sounds to me like you haven’t been listened to…’

-Build a team around them.

What can anyone else do? 

  1. Challenge your attitudes.
  2. Challenge stigma and jokes from others.
  3. Open up to learning and changing your mind.
  4. Follow Beyond the Streets on social media and keep an eye out for upcoming ways of getting involved with our training events, fundraisers, and knowledge sharing. 

Want to know more about our outreach work? Read ‘All About Outreach’ here.  

Learn more about #WorldHomelessDay2022 http://www.worldhomelessday.org/