Counting the cost
Omoremi Williams, one our volunteers, recently spent some time reflecting on her experience supporting Kairos’ Evening Outreach and Drop-In service. Read on for her for thoughts…
“How much do they charge?”. This is almost always the first question I get when people find out I am an Outreach/Drop-in volunteer for a charity that supports women in prostitution. However, having been in this role for over 18 months and gotten to know many of the women and their stories, I have found myself internally questioning, “How much does this cost her?”.
When I first started volunteering with Kairos in January 2017, I had truly no idea of what to expect. Although we had been given very robust training in all areas of the role, ranging from a very eye-opening session on drug use and needle exchange, to optional self-defence classes, I still had that first-day-of-school feeling when I joined my first drop-in, waiting for the first women to press the buzzer. Needless to say, I spent this session in an observational position, as I wanted to understand how best to communicate with service users without being needlessly offensive (also because I wouldn’t have been much help beyond a milky cup of tea).
Connections were made using your standard day-to-day conversations (mentions of glamorous holidays and weekends abroad were better left out of these). I would be lying, however, if I said that these connections with service users were always easily-made or long-held. Some of the women simply wanted a hot drink sans the small talk. Some didn’t even want to engage, but the door was always held open for if/when they felt comfortable to get support.
I found it quite surprising initially, when some of the Kairos leads would attempt to engage with service users to get their housing, benefits, and/or legal support coordinated, and would find they needed to chase service users. Listening to the women helped me understand that, for them, it often wasn’t the first time they had been offered support, and they had sadly been disappointed by other organisations in the past. I personally think this is one of the key experiences that makes volunteering with women caught up in prostitution, quite different from other types of volunteering.
Having previously volunteered with hospital patients and young children, these groups are typically quite eager to accept any support they receive. Whereas the women who Kairos help often show hesitation and even suspicion – somebody less familiar with their experiences could actually interpret these reactions as a lack of gratitude; and it is only with a commitment to understanding the background of service users and to establishing trust with them that Kairos has been so successful in breaking down the (ultimately self-protective) barriers that the women have built, and supporting so many.
Due to popular culture, it has become much easier to imagine that all women caught in prostitution live the stereotype of the well-heeled escort that seduces unknowing men and jets off for jobs while living an affluent life many of us could only imagine. Far more often, however, there is the much more acute situation of a woman with a life that is unimaginable. I believe the common theme that unites the women in the streets is chaos.
A chaotic (and commonly, horrifically abusive) childhood drives young women into dangerous environments where substance abuse and street sex work are not only synonymous, but sometimes inevitable. And, regardless of which comes first, a terminal cycle begins that all too frequently ends with prison, death – or, hopefully, the intervention of an organisation like Kairos. Whether this be with something as small and innocuous as an offer of a steaming cup of tea, the important thing is that a connection to a support network is made so that a different journey can begin…
We really love and value our volunteers here at Kairos. If you’re interested in joining a team of amazing people like Omoremi, take a look at our volunteering page for latest vacancies here.