"There is a need for women who sell or exchange sex to have a crisis fund, not just during COVID" – Encompass Network
During the pandemic, the Encompass Network administered a crisis fund for women involved in selling or exchanging sex. In this blog, Linda Thompson, who coordinates the network, shares how the fund worked, how women benefited, the learnings from this experience and the vision for a longer-term financial solution for women.
How did the Encompass Network identify money as a key priority for women involved in selling or exchanging sex during the pandemic?
Right from the beginning of March 2020 we flagged up that women selling or exchanging sex were starting to be in financial difficulty. On a weekly basis I had contact with all the Encompass Network services and heard what was happening on the ground for women and took that to the Scottish Government.
At the end of March we also completed a needs assessment, which involved speaking to Encompass workers and collating the issues that women were facing, and the number one issue was money. Given that a lot of women involved are not investing or saving, have no masses of resources to draw upon, we knew that if their money supplies stopped they didn't have anything, so we started work on this very early, kind of pre-empting and looking at what was happening elsewhere in the world as lockdown restrictions started to appear in different countries.
What were some of women’s specific financial issues that you identified?
It’s really important to note that the women are not a homogeneous group, so not everyone was affected in the same way – it depended on their own context and background. But what we saw in other countries and which we knew was coming our way was that there wasn't going to be the same amount of punters given the restrictions that started to be put in place. Lockdown was going to have a huge impact on women and their opportunities to sell sex were going to be reduced with the temporary closure of saunas, brothels and lap dancing clubs – no demand equals no money. For women involved in direct contact, this was cataclysmic – they had no money coming in, no financial reserves to draw upon, very often no family support and many hadn’t disclosed that their income stream was through selling sex.
The government launched some financial support programmes like furlough. Were women able to access these supports?
No, because women selling sex didn’t fit the criteria. They weren't employees, they didn't have payroll numbers, they weren't able to evidence income, they had no wage slips. There wasn't a pot of money women could easily apply for, but there were some crisis funds available, for example for single parents and we were able to support women to access them.
We tried to identify other means of ensuring that the women had the basic needs met, like food banks, while also lobbying the Scottish Government for a bigger pot of funding that could be available for women as a crisis fund.
After much lobbying and pressure from us, the Scottish Government identified women involved as a high risk non-shielding group. Also COSLA’s community health and wellbeing board noted the women as a priority group because of their vulnerabilities. And because women were granted that priority status, we said – well, what are you going to do about that? You need to put a measure in place. And that became the Encompass fund.
Once you got the grant, how did you decide how to administer and make it available for women?
I'm going to be honest, at the start, the Encompass Network were very apprehensive about this fund because we are not fund administrators. We are a group of frontline services with support workers and so we had huge concerns about the management and administration of this money. But we wanted to make it as accessible as possible for women with a quick turnaround, giving women a decision within 48 hours.
In the first instance, the government identified £30,000, which were to be administered by Encompass member organisations. The reason behind this was around accountability. As this was public money, we wanted to ensure due diligence, but also be able to better understand women's needs – what were they coming forward for? How much was for food? What was being used for other needs?
We sent out flyers to other organisations, peer support groups like Umbrella Lane, Scot-PEP, the GMB, escort agencies. We tried to ensure via the commercial avenues that women were informed about what supports were available. Again, it was trying to broaden that net out through the violence against women partnerships, so whenever they were compiling information for local services, ensuring that the Encompass fund was included in that.
We decided to have a light touch application that would be assessed by workers. We also had a checking mechanism in place, so if there was a larger sum of money or a larger item needed or something specific, that would go for a decision with service managers of the Encompass Network. We had applications coming in from addictions workers, from counsellors and mental health workers, but we also had a high number of applications from peer support groups.
What was the process for women to tap into this fund?
As I said, this was a light touch application keeping her and her context at the core, with the intention of seeing what we could do to support her. We worked on the assumption of believing women and the needs, issues and priorities they came with.
Our starting point was: if anybody had issues around food, we would get a supermarket e-voucher out to them within a matter of hours. We wanted to ensure that women and their children had food in their bellies that night whilst we were assessing an application.
Then it was looking at her application and saying, well actually there's the Aberlour fund that is also available to you. Okay, you're living in this area and there is a food sharing scheme. Let's get you signed up for that so from this point onwards you get a weekly delivery of food. OK, what other issues are there? You're struggling with your data – let’s get you a data stick with enough data for six months. Each application would be assessed on an individual basis according to her location, what was her housing like, her utilities, was she in arrears. It was an exploration with the woman about the issues she was facing.
Now, there were other funds available for women at the same time, for example, Umbrella Lane had a crisis fund. So we were very clear that we weren't the only ones. And if women came forward to us and there was something they asked for that we weren't able to provide them, we would ensure that they knew about other funds.
It seems that the Encompass fund almost fulfilled two purposes. One was to get women hardship money to address that crisis situation, but also the opportunity to assess her wider needs.
Absolutely. And it wasn’t a condition of this fund to commit to ongoing support and engagement. The other thing that we spent a lot of time considering, reflecting on and monitoring was that we were very conscious of the power that you have if somebody's in desperation and needs money and you've got it. The very nature of selling and exchanging sex is that you do something for somebody to get money or goods. We didn't want to mirror that dynamic in the administration of this fund. So we agreed that this would be a short-term intervention, and that we did not want to manage this fund in the long term.
What are some examples of how the women benefited from the Encompass Fund?
Supermarket vouchers were the largest proportion of what was given out. And that would cover things like food, cleaning materials, but also kids’ clothes. The fund was used to support housing for women who had issues with their accommodation or rent. I will give one example that it's quite tangible: there was a woman whose fridge broke down. She had no fridge and no money. For her to avail of the food bank and food share, she had nowhere to store some of it. Giving her a fridge meant that she was able to access other supports on a longer term basis and not just the Encompass fund. And it gave her a degree of stability and breathing space to start to thinking about dynamics and issues and relationships in her life.
So absolutely the focus was getting practicalities, priority issues, needs, whatever the woman needed. But the other benefit for women was the onward impact. As we know, a lot of women involved don't disclose to services, they don't have support workers, they don't engage with services. For some of the women, this was the first time they tapped into support and received a positive response. They were able to open up and start talking about other issues in their life – their mental health, what was happening with their kids, previous experiences, issues around domestic abuse. In many ways it opened the door for the women to feel safe to talk to somebody who didn’t judge them.
Right now are there any similar funds that women can access to get through the Cost of Living crisis?
Not to my knowledge. At this stage there is no specific fund, but the Encompass workers are trying to find relevant funds that women can avail of. Being involved in selling or exchanging sex is only one part of women's lives, so Encompass workers are supporting women if there's funding available for energy and utility support, for example. We have also revisited the Victim’s Fund, now known as the Emergency Assistance Fund, and done training with staff and with Victim Support in that this money is still crisis money.
In your view, what were the key learnings of running this fund?
One is the challenges of administering a crisis fund. How do we get applications? How do we get criteria? How do we process it? What are the timeframes? But I think one of the key learnings was that there is a need for women to have a crisis fund, not just during COVID. There is a long term need for women to be able to access funding, which should not lie with organisations that are providing support to women. We made the recommendation that there should be a fund that Encompass would support, but that we shouldn't administer. That was when the Scottish Government put an additional ringfenced £60,000 into the Victim’s Fund for women involved in selling or exchanging sex, which is still available and open.
But my big question is, where is the learning from COVID about the vulnerabilities and the precarious financial situation for women? COVID clearly showed that there is a need for women to access light touch crisis support in the short term, but what are we doing in the long term? Because a crisis fund is absolutely needed, but that is not the solution to women's gendered poverty, and to those who will exploit financial poverty and fragile situations. We have to take the learnings from these crises and ensure that as part of the framework for Scotland there is a longer term support that considers the goals of women involved and support them to get to where they want to be.
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