The New Futures Project, then called Women’s Health in Prostitution, was formed in Leicester in 1995 with a simple aim – to make a difference to the lives of some of the most brutalised and exploited women in the city.
It has evolved over the years to become a broader welfare and counselling service and currently supports approximately 400 women and young people.
However, in 1995, it was a much smaller affair.
Week after week, a small group of volunteers headed for the streets carrying essentials such as condoms and advice about safe-sex. Over the weeks and months, they became familiar and friendly faces to scores of women living on the margins.
Maggie Brown, the project’s current assistant director, joined a couple of years after the group took those first steps.
“The idea was they would go out and basically give safe-sex advice to the women, predominantly around HIV/AIDS,” Maggie says.
“Someone would be responsible for collecting the condoms and they would all meet up at the project and go out.
“The beat was almost 9pm until 11pm then, not the 24 hours a day stuff that’s going on now. I’d say the average age then was 25 to 28. We could see anything between 40 and 70 women a night.”
At first, the group found most of the women were working to keep their heads above water. However, Maggie recalls, motivations changed gradually over the next few years as use of heroin and crack cocaine spread.
“Most of the women were there to pay their bills – to put food on the table and to pay their rent. They knew how much money they needed and worked to earn that.
“We saw that start to change with the rise in heroin and crack – but you don’t know whether the work or the drugs came first. We began to see the younger girls coming in between maybe 2000 and 2005.”
As time went by, the women began to form a bond of trust with the outreach team and started to reveal more about their lives – many of them telling harrowing stories of abuse and exploitation by clients, ‘boyfriends’ and members of the public.
New Futures carried out a survey of some of the women who were working in the city a few years ago.
Here are some of the findings:
· The average age the women started working on the street was 14
· 66 per cent self-harm
· 93 per cent grew up in the care system
· 96 per cent were sexually abused as children
· 98 per cent have lost custody of their children
· 89 per cent are homeless
· 73 per cent have been to prison
· 92 per cent were working to support someone else’s substance use
· 100 per cent have experienced domestic violence
· 100 per cent have been beaten up, sexually assaulted or robbed by a punter
As the group learned more about the women it realised it needed to expand. “We were getting busier and we realised we needed to be offering more to the clients at that point,” Maggie says.
Inevitably, this led to the question of whether it could secure its own place, somewhere the women could go for a break from the pressures of daily life.
So, in 2001 it moved out of the Regent Road base it had shared with Leicestershire AIDS Support Services and moved into its first own home, near the city centre in London Road – close to some of the busiest beats. It became an independent charity in 2003.
One drawback of the Regent Road office had been its unsuitability for drop-in sessions. This was not the case with the new base though.
“It worked really well in London Road and we were able to run the drop-in until midnight and we were doing outreach two or three times a week.
“Basically, people were coming in from the moment we opened until the moment we closed,” Maggie says.
“The idea was it would be a place the women could come to and feel safe. A lot of them are homeless – that was always a problem and still is.
“We’ve found that women who are homeless don’t get as much sleep as the men do because they would feel unsafe trying to bed down at night.
“They tend to walk around to try to stay awake and then try to find somewhere safe to sleep during the day. So we had showers and bunk-beds put in for them.
“A lot of the young women we were seeing being sexually exploited were from care homes, not all of them but many of them for sure. Their older ‘boyfriend’ would wait for them outside the homes. A lot of those girls are now our older clients.”
Although the group’s outreach workers still see some women who they first encountered in those early days, many are gone now. Some have moved away from the city, others are no longer working and some, Maggie says, have died.
Those women are commemorated on plaques throughout the charity’s current base and drop-in centre in London Road.
“All of our counselling rooms are named after women we have lost,” Maggie says, adding: “We’ve run out of rooms to put those plaques.”
Later, the group moved to a new base in Sussex Street, in the Humberstone Road area, again near the streets where many of the women worked. In 2015/16, it moved back to London Road, a few hundred yards from the original office.
The scope of the group’s work has expanded year by year ever since. Now, it supports women and young people who are experiencing trauma in its many forms – whether that be a result of sexual abuse or exploitation, domestic violence, trafficking, poverty and debt, homelessness, substance use or mental ill-health.
Also, it is playing a crucial role in training the social workers of tomorrow by offering 70 to 100-day placements to dozens of students from universities across the region.
Each student is placed under the supervision of a qualified social worker and works with up to 12 clients. This gives them invaluable real-life work experience before they resume their studies.
It the autumn of 2023, it launched part-time counselling training for people who want to take their first steps on the path to qualifying as therapists or who are simply interested in their own personal or professional development.
The 30-week level two certificate in counselling skills course is accredited by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, (BACP).
Those taking part will gain a qualification which could prove an asset in their personal or professional lives even if they do not intend to go on to complete further study on the road to qualifying as therapists.
New Futures was set up more than 20 years ago to support women involved in sex work.
However, we have evolved into a welfare and counselling service for women and young people dealing with sexual abuse or exploitation – frequently involving domestic violence, trafficking, poverty and debt, substance use or mental ill-health.
Call us on 0116 251 0803 or send us a message at: email@example.com
You can find us at 71 London Road, Leicester, LE2 0PE.