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Equity Foundation report on visit to MASH (Aug 2013)


Manchester Action on Street Health, better known as MASH, is based on Fairfield Street in Manchester city centre, which unknown to many Manchester residents is the centre of  street sex work in the City.  MASH Chief Executive Cate Allison said that the centre has been in contact with 480 women this year. Many of the women who access MASH services have no fixed abode and about 40% of street sex workers have been through the care system. According to MASH volunteers and staff, the women they support have all had very different experiences and lifestyles that have led them to sex work, including family breakdown, abuse, poverty, homelessness and drug and alcohol addictions. They are a very marginalised and isolated group, and face daily issues of stigma and discrimination. Many women who work on the streets have been so damaged by their life experiences that they need intensive support.

The Difficulties of Fundraising

Cate Allison, MASH Chief Executive, says that fundraising for a marginalised service users group can be complex. Ideally funders want to hear of quick wins but in reality supporting the women is a long and slow process:

“We are there for women in the long term. We support them to make their own choices and signpost them to services that can help them on their journey. We help women survive sex work.”

The Equity Foundation have donated £4000 to MASH which will allow them to continue providing the counselling service they set up a year ago, and promote the service specifically to sauna workers in the area. The centre offers support in various forms to clients that have very chaotic lives. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) sessions are available with a trained counsellor for any of the women who wish to have them. The sessions have so far been a big success, especially for sex workers working on the street and living more volatile lifestyles. Many women suffer with addiction issues and mental illness so CBT offers a more prescriptive style of therapy to tackle these problems methodically. It allows clients to focus on straight forward coping mechanisms, dealing with addiction and addressing low self-esteem.

Reaching Out To Everyone

The volunteers and staff at the centre will promote the counselling service to women working and living in in Chorlton-Cum-Hardy, Fallowfield, Gorton, Levenshulme and Northenden, encouraging them to use the counselling service, which has been mostly accessed by street sex workers so far. The centre employs a Sexual Health Nurse, Deb, who works at the MASH Centre in Manchester. Part of her role is to visit saunas to offer sexual health screening for HIV and STI’s, Hep B vaccinations and pregnancy testing. Deb, alongside a team of volunteers visiting saunas, gradually build up trusting relationships with off street workers and can then refer them to the various support services available through the centre.

A One Stop Shop

MASH is well rounded in its provision as it offers a plethora of services. Chief Executive Cate Allison says this expansion of services is quite a recent development and the centre is proud to have a completely holistic service. The Drop-In Centre is open daily and women can pop in to pick up condoms, access a needle exchange or simply relax with a hot drink. The Drop-In also runs educational sessions, complementary therapies, picture framing groups and arts and craft workshops which encourage creative expression. It is clear on Equity’s visit to MASH HQ that the centre is a safe place where women do not need to be on their guard. When we meet the MASH team clients mill around the room having cups of tea, searching for employment on the computers and playing games – it is hard to tell who is a volunteer and who is a sex worker.

MASH services include a Criminal Justice worker, an Occupational Therapist, a trained Counsellor, a Sexual Health Nurse and case workers who offer individualised plans and advice to clients. MASH’s outreach van engages with street workers on a daily basis. Volunteers and staff give out free condoms and lubricants, needle exchange, offer sexual health and harm reduction advice, reports on ‘dodgy’ or violent punters, and refer clients to other services.

Personal Stories

MASH staff and volunteers acknowledge that the road to recovery can be a lengthy process for many service users; despite this many do move on from sex work with the help of the project. Dawn*, 34 is a shining example of this process. In 2008 she felt the MASH Centre was a place of respite; somewhere to relax with a hot drink and access condoms. At this time Dawn’s situation was bleak. She was homeless, malnourished, a heavy drug user and mentally ill. Dawn was coerced into prostitution following her partner’s death, when a friend introduced her to sex work as payment for her lodgings. As is often the case the outreach van was the way MASH staff and volunteers built up a relationship with Dawn and introduced her to the centre. It took a couple of year but eventually Dawn was working with the centres case workers regularly and accessing a doctor, as well as receiving health and diet support.

Dawn served two weeks in Styal Prison for petty crimes involving drugs in 2011. Helen, MASH’s Criminal Justice worker supported Dawn after her release from prison helping her find housing and maintaining her drug treatment. Dawn was also helped by the centres Occupational Therapist who assisted her with practical issues such as diet, health and socialising. She also received CBT counselling from MASH’s counsellor Karen who helped her focus on specific actions to alter her life.

Dawn feels her mentor Lindsey was one of the reasons her recovery has been so successful. Lindsey accompanied Dawn to support groups, women’s centres and to the bank to open an account. All of these activities may seem simple to most of us but Dawn was too anxious and depressed to do them alone and so a mentor’s support was invaluable. Dawn is now undertaking vocational training to allow her to work in building and restoration. She has also applied to do courses at Manchester College in jewellery design and interior design. She has high hopes for the future and is proud to see how far she has come.

Long Term Support is a Must

Chief Executive, Cate Allison says that MASH’s strength lies in its unwavering commitment to long term support. She said:

“Statutory services offer time limited therapy that is enough for our women. There is also an issue of our service users feeling that they are unable to talk to those working in mainstream provision because of the stigma attached to sex work. We don’t see these women as sex workers – we see them as individuals.”

The Equity Foundation grant will allow the centre to extend current services to sex workers that currently are hard to reach. Although MASH do a great job with the women they support there are still many vulnerable women in Manchester that need help. With so many people still to help, MASH are grateful for funding which allows this kind of outreach initiative.


Written by

Alison Carter

Equity Foundation Communications Assistant

Aug 2013

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