“Angels in the Night” who help the women of St Pauls
In the Rapid Response Paramedic role from which he has just recently retired, Ian Whittern would often be called to South Gloucestershire addresses for women who reported assault, having made it home from Bristol’s red-light district. It would transpire these were street sex workers; a high-risk game where drug addiction, coercion, sexual assault, serious infection, robbery, and even murder are all quantifiable. The more money each of these women needed, the greater the risks they would take and abuse they might endure. Ian discovered that many had engaged with the charity, ONE25, referring to the volunteers as “angels in the night”.
Set in the Grosvenor Centre, an old Baptist chapel in the very heart of St Pauls, this cosy refuge offers a glimmer of hope to those forced by fair means or foul, into becoming street sex workers. Enormous effort has helped create a building which boasts a clinic, laundry, food and clothes bank, professional kitchen, shower facilities, and above all, a secure and pleasant seating area where trained support workers are to hand.
In the past year, this veritable sanctuary has supported 271 women, many of them transient, giving them an opportunity to escape the chaos, where domestic and ‘workplace violence’ affects 93%, homelessness 53%, addiction 73%, and unsurprisingly, significant mental health needs affecting 85%. Over half disclosed a history of childhood abuse.
The work of the charity is both challenging and rewarding when you consider an additional 37 women were helped this year compared to last, and 29 exited street work completely. 165 were safer because of engaging with ONE25.
Negotiating the maze of small corridors and stairs, reaching an adjacent building, the small admin rooms house the support worker teams which keep this centre thriving . . . just!
Every square foot of space is exploited, and hidden behind solid wooden gates sits the famous ONE25 ‘Night bus’. This slightly battered outreach van, which Ian likened to a converted ambulance (without the stretcher), we find it is internally hung with welcoming fairy lights. Women volunteers go out from 9 pm until the early morning hours, seven nights a week, to the streets where the women and girls work. On board is everything from compassion to contraceptives, food and drinks and warm clothing, needle exchange, and help in more ways than there’s space to write. In this converted van, they build a rapport, encouraging the women to use the Grosvenor Centre for additional support. With the recent cost of living crisis, the volunteers have seen many of the girls return to the streets as they struggle to survive. And so the cycle begins again.
Yet this is set against a background of recent funding cuts, needing the charity to reconfigure how they operate within the newly reduced financial envelope.
Ian is the current master of Hambrook Lodge, which meets at Stapleton Masonic Hall, just a couple of miles up the road from the Grosvenor Centre, and he has made ONE25 his charity of choice for his year in the chair. Following a gift of £2100, raised by the lodge, he and past master, Dick Smith, were invited to the refuge to see how the money is spent. Rachel and Gaby were the guides and confirmed ONE25 supported women from a far more extensive area than Bristol, including South Gloucestershire and North Somerset. Home for many is often some way from the red-light areas where they work. Known pimps bus-in young girls from the surrounding counties to work the streets and brothels that spring up in the city.
“An unforgettable memory from the early 1990s,” recounted Ian, “was responding to a 999 call for a petite 15-year-old Gloucestershire girl. She was in the care system, but in septic shock due to pelvic inflammatory disease, attributed to the work her ‘pimp’ put her to. It was the first time I had a gun pulled on me, actually as I was physically carrying this semi-conscious teen out of the squat to the ambulance. The man wielding the gun clearly wanted her to attend to a queue of waiting men, but the likelihood of her imminent death was sufficient that he allowed me to pass and lowered the weapon. Shaken, I thought he might shoot me in the back as I passed him. My crewmate saw the incident and raced to radio for police help.
“I have been at the sharp end, so I’ve seen the needs of these girls and how much ONE25 can help them. I am so grateful for the support the brethren have given me in raising this fabulous amount.”