I worked in the NHS in clinical practice and research for many years. At one time a man was referred to me, for counselling, who disclosed that he used to knife women in street based prostitution. He didn’t kill them he got pleasure from scaring them and scarring them. That case drew my attention to the fact that there is a group of very vulnerable women on our streets. While I was glad that the man who did those terrible things to women got help I wondered whether there was any kind of mental health care for the kind of women he hurt. I contacted an umbrella organisation for people involved in prostitution and asked whether there was any mental health help out there for them. Very kindly they circulated my original email to those in the sector and I was inundated with responses telling me there was nothing for those people. I decided to try to discover for myself whether there was a way of making therapy accessible to women in street prostitution.

I found my way to Maze Marigold, a drop in service for women in street based prostitution in Dalston.  It was in a beaten up, open plan, church hall with a toilet with no door.  I introduced myself to the women in the drop in and listened to them and gradually, over months, they came to trust me and ask for me and that is how it started, quite simply.

To talk in private we had to use the attic, which was full of junk and had a hole in the roof which we had to put a bucket under, to catch the rain and where birds got in. I got two chairs in amongst the junk and a huge two dimensional Our Lady and Child, a left over for some church event, which loomed over us and sometimes it moved in the wind and made us jump. I remember that attic very fondly, because I learned the most important thing there at the Maze Marigold, which was that the most excluded, vulnerable women, living chaotic lives can engage therapeutically. 

Her pattern of engagement reflects the chaos of their lives, they attend intermittently and for different times, but that doesn’t seem to prevent them from getting some benefit. Every woman we have ever met, even women who have just sat down and talked to for a few minutes, has at some point come back and asked for more help, sometimes years later, when the time is right.

Over the years of working with these women, my experience is that they derive more benefit from counselling than the doctor-referred clients I worked with in the NHS.

After a year Maze Marigold was suddenly shut down, at very short notice.  It was hard to have to tell women who had known little but loss and abandonment that I wouldn’t be there anymore.  That motivated me to set up Street Talk, to have a more autonomy. I wanted to carry on working with the women and learning from them, to try to provide a service which was client led. Their lives were complex , I knew I had a lot more to learn.

I knew nothing about running a charity.  Luckily there have been a lot of good people who have helped me and who continue to stand by Street Talk and the women. At this point some friends deserve a mention. Cecily and Bob Hunter who live in Ontario sent the first cheque made out to Street Talk for one hundred pounds. That cheque enabled me to open a bank account, the first step towards registering as a charity. Cecily and Bob got the ball rolling. Another friend Rod Harper gave the ball a good push in the right direction when he helped Street Talk to get its first grant. It was a grant for three thousand pounds from London Quaker Services Trust. For the first time we were able to plan a little bit ahead.

And so you can see that Street Talk started from humble beginnings and although we have grown, with help from a lot of good people, I remain committed to running a small charity because after ten years in the sector it seems to me, that it’s the small charities which do the best work. It seems important that the people running a charity know what experience the people they are there to serve are having. They are the most important people. That must be difficult in a big charity and perhaps that is why sometimes things go wrong. As I write this Street Talk is providing services across six hostels and three drop-in services as well as taking referrals directly to the service from Bronzefield Prison.

I had everything to learn about the lives of the women we work with. I am still learning. This is some of what I have learned so far:

There but for the grace of God go I. Had I had the childhoods that these women have had, I’d be in the same kind of trouble, or worse. I wonder at the courage and strength of a women who have known nothing but hurt, to face another day. Each day of my working life I am humbled by the courage of the women and wonder at the strength of the human spirit.

At the Maze Marigold I discovered that contrary to the opinion of some in mental health care, the most chaotic women, rough sleeping, addicted, women who don’t know what day it is, will come forward for one to one therapy.

I have gone on to discover that women with chaotic life styles will come forward to participate creatively in group work. It’s always a challenge to get people to take part in group work. Over four years Street Talk ran a weekly group where women were able to talk together openly and honestly about difficult subjects which are frequently taboo. Having children removed by social services, how it feels to b put under section, the crimes, sometimes violent crimes, that the women have committed and the events and emotions which have led up to that. It was very moving each week to witness women supporting one another through very difficult experiences. The group was a place where women discover that whatever they are living through, they are not alone.

Women recover when they find their own motivation. One of the things I have learned which has surprised me is that without exception, the women’s motivation has been to help other people. I also have observed that when there is an opportunity for women to support one another, that goes much further and is much more effective than any help from professionals. In response to that we have tried to create opportunities for women whom we have worked with, to volunteer with us. One of our volunteers was very generous in sharing her experiences of living with bi polar. As a result there were four women who come to the group who recognised  symptoms they live with and who went on to get a diagnosis and get treatment.  One woman is a rough sleeper and that’s a real achievement to get someone who is rough sleeping into treatment. One woman in her sixties has lived with bi polar wreaking havoc all her adult life. Since she started treatment she has met her grandchildren for the first time. She was able to contact her son and explain that it was her illness that led to her neglecting him and his removal by social services when he was little. Until she had the diagnosis she felt too ashamed to make contact with him. Those four women are getting the treatment they need was thanks to your involvement one of our volunteers.  I couldn’t have done that.

I have been completely surprised by which women made good progress and I could not have predicted that which women would, like a shrub flowering in unexpected places. I have watched women overcome odds which seemed insurmountable and get their life back.  If they can, any can and that is the most encouraging thing I have learned. Any of the women who find their way to us might recover. I was reminded by one of our women, that it is the pain of childhood abuse at the root of women’s problems. She is someone who knows something about pain from childhood.

At the age of eight she stood by whilst her father was shot in their home in gang warfare. Her mother went psychotic and has been in and out of mental hospital  ever since. She and her brother were separated and sent to different foster carers. At the age of eleven she gave birth to her first baby in the bathroom of the foster carers’ home. The father of the baby was her foster father. He killed the baby, then killed himself. She was placed with a different family where she was also sexually abused. She was forty when she came to Street Talk, had never told her story, was very poorly, having had many hospital admissions but never having care on leaving hospital because of her transient life style. She had been rough sleeping and had had six children removed. After she came to Street Talk three years ago, she began to engage with a mental health team, and went on to medication for bi- polar, for the first time in her life. She has also had some contact with all six of her children.  However the point of me telling you about her, is that I was very moved by something she said when she came for her counselling session last week. Whilst she was waiting another woman in the day centre who was drunk was causing a commotion being a bit scary,

She opened her session by saying,

“Pippa, when people shout out like that, they’re not angry, they’re hurting.“

Her words spoke a truth which underlies all the work which Street Talk does.

Having worked closely with the women for now almost fifteen years it became apparent that a new model of had evolved. Client-led and rooted in object relations theory I named that model therapy of presence, recognising the fact that the continued presence of the therapist, even when the client is missing seems to both hold the client and encourage their sense of self.

In 2017 the work of Street Talk was recognised by the British Psychoanalytic Association when we were the runner up in their annual award for innovative practice.

That is out story. We are still here doing what we do, still on a wing and a prayer.  The sad thing is that since we started in 2005 the numbers of women in the street are greater while many of the small charities supporting them have gone under. These are tough times for small charities.