East End project to help women out of prostitution extended

A SCHEME in Tower Hamlets which hopes to get women out of the revolving door of being arrested for prostitution and back on the streets again is being extended to other Olympic boroughs.

The Safe Exit diversion scheme is run by staff at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel as a way of helping women turn their lives around and between June 2006 and December 2009 84 women came through the scheme.

They are referred by the police and have to attend two meetings with case workers who put them in touch with debt advice and help find safe accommodation, benefits and health care.

This week 200 people working with prostitutes across the country heard about different ways of helping street workers and trafficked women and children at a meeting at Toynbee Hall.

Lynne Featherstone MP, Parliamentary under Secretary of State for Equalities said: “It is essential that the response to prostitution is rooted and engaged with the local community. I believe that the best responses to prostitution are rooted in the local community. I very much commend Safe Exit - it’s worked so far.”

Researchers said Safe Exit Diversion Scheme has helped reduce the number of women going to prison, with 40 per cent fewer prostitutes in Tower Hamlets being jailed in 2009/10 compared with 2008/09.

Out of the women surveyed more than half were aged 26-35 and 69 per cent of them lived in Tower Hamlets. A quarter of them were homeless but by the time of their last assessments the number of homeless women had dropped to just seven per cent.

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A high proportion of them had mental health problems, 86 per cent of them said they used crack cocaine or heroin, many had children and a high number had been victims of assault.

One woman, Kate, who has been through the scheme said: “I know a lot of people think you do the diversion scheme to get out of court and not get and not get a fine but that’s not the only reason; it gets things done. It helped me sort things out that I wouldn’t be able to do without the help.”

Miriam Merkova, Safe Exit Manager, said: “It gets women away from a punitive approach and gives them ways to get support.

“As the London Olympics 2012 draws ever closer there is a fear that the issue of prostitution will be brushed away from the streets and public view, to a much more sanitised version of what London really is.

“Displacing women will only increase the risks that they face. We believe that rolling out the diversion scheme is a long term solution for the women involved, and a safer one.”