On the night streets

Anna Reed from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective serves up a fruit salad to a working girl in the Salvation Army caravan.
Anna Reed from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective serves up a fruit salad to a working girl in the Salvation Army caravan.

Wednesday was unusually hot for the time of year.

The temperature had pipped 30 degrees but relief arrived with a southerly change and, some time in the darkness, a light drizzle fell.

On Wednesday, more than any other day this week, it seemed pertinent to evaluate the weather in such detail because it was the opening day of the Ellerslie Flower Show.

Sex worker Christie shows off the tools of her trade on a slow night in Christchurch.
Sex worker Christie shows off the tools of her trade on a slow night in Christchurch.

The flower show has quickly become one of those terribly Christchurch things, like the rebuild and Hekia Parata's school reforms. All of those topics are less than half a dozen years old but prostitution - the oldest profession - and the Manchester St sex workers are just as much a part of Christchurch. It's just that they are rarely discussed, not in polite company, anyway.

Whether their consistent presence offends or not, the flow of clients is steady. The city's street- based sex worker industry is not going anywhere.

By the time that late drizzle arrived on Wednesday it was 10.30pm. About half a dozen prostitutes dotted the footpath from the Cambridge St corner by the river, north past Bealey Ave to Canon and Purchas Streets. Popping in for coffee, a filled roll or some fruit salad and condoms from the drop-in van seemed like a good way to get out of the rain.

The Salvation Army van sits on a vacant lot near Salisbury St. Since the quakes, it has become a regular drop-in centre.

Wednesdays are for sex workers only, other nights are for the poor and homeless.

If Pretty Woman or the novel Belle de Jour gave prostitution a slightly more glamorous touch, you'd never guess it on Wednesday night.

Calleigh, 19, climbs into the van for coffee and a catch up. She was placed in CYF care at the age of four and, by her early teens, she was hooking on the street, introduced to the life by her two older sisters. The money was for "cigarettes and a little bit of booze".

Calleigh's eyes are dull and her belly is round because she is almost six months pregnant. She doesn't come out much these days but when she needs to earn money, she knows she can do it on Manchester St.

In the time it takes to drink the coffee, she says she better be going again because time is money and she only wants to work for another two months so she can "buy baby stuff".

She takes off her jandals and zips up the high-heeled black boots again. Since she got pregnant, her feet swell and standing on the street all night doesn't help.

Jessica is 24, all baby-faced and boobs in a girly pink top. She struggles to remember the first time a man paid her to have sex but she remembers one time a man tried to suffocate her. She doesn't get nervous standing on Manchester St too often these days, unless it's a client that looks like that man. She doesn't take drugs and hardly drinks so the money goes towards the daughter she adopted out last year. Dyslexia and dyspraxia mean she's never held down an office job, she wants to spoil her daughter with toys and Manchester St is the only "office" she's never been fired from.

On Wednesday night from 10pm to midnight, the girls come and go. They are younger, older, they are in shape, ravaged, on drugs, a bit drunk, straight as a die, shy, extrovert, mumbling and clear. The only thing they seem to have in common is that street.

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The women who keep an unofficial eye on the street-based sex workers are Captain Shar Davis, a minister from the Salvation Army street outreach services, and Anna Reed and Rochelle Davis from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC).

Shar Davis says the van is where the women know to come for a chat.

"We believe every person has value and we endeavour to give people their dignity. Here, there is no sense of judgment. They can sit down and have a talk about what's real for them and we have various services we can wrap around them.

"It's been a real learning curve for me but it's a fascinating insight. There's such a variety of reasons the girls are here. It sounds like they just want money but the stories behind that are quite complicated."

Rochelle Davis (no relation) says the actual work is the least of these women's problems.

"It's often the only thing they feel they have control over, it's the only relatively normal thing in their chaotic lives."

Tracey is 39. She's been working on the streets for about 10 years "on and off". They all seem to work "on and off"' which is why it is difficult to gauge the number of street workers. Rochelle Davis says that over 12 months she would have had contact with 70 women but that includes those that come out just a couple of times, then quit, or those who do a few hours each week or only when they need money. There is no real average number over the course of 24 hours but Davis reckons six, although once she saw 20.

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If you see Tracey's eyes beneath her long fringe, you will see they are glazed. She is nothing if not honest. She is drug-dependent, mainly on morphine and ritalin. She'd been working in parlours from age 18 to 28.

"But then someone said why don't you try Manny 'cos we make money there. And because I'm a druggie I need to work."

The story is the same, men pull over and wind down the window. The girls say something like "Are you after some fun?" The sexual act and price are negotiated. The deed is done in the car, a vacant lot, at the woman's house, the man's motel or home. They think their clients prefer street workers to brothels because of prices, the "naughty" aspect of doing it the car or they prefer the anonymity of the street so they don't have to walk into a brothel and see someone they know.

Tracey goes to her patch but she comes back later to say a man in a 4WD came up with a baton looking for one of the girls.

"Someone's going to have some trouble tonight," she says and off she goes again.

Word filtered through that a police officer had pulled up one of the girls while she was in the car with a client. The officer asked her name, address and details.

"For goodness' sake," says Reed. "These girls do not want to be giving their details in front of clients. It can be dangerous. They should know that."

Danger or not, they still work.

Catherine is 22. She had plans to work the street until she could afford a house and pay for the mortgage by setting it up as a brothel but addiction got the money first - pokies, drugs, alcohol, whatever.

A drug-induced psychosis landed her in hospital where she was diagnosed as bi-polar. She thinks the "high" part of her bi- polar illness stops her feeling vulnerable on the street.

"I took the medication and social workers supported me so I got into university doing linguistics and philosophy.

"Working the streets suited uni because I could study and make money in the weekends but I stopped taking the medication and I'm back with a habit and no uni."

Christie is 39, blonde and her make-up is precise but not heavy. She thinks nothing of the physical aspect of the job, she just concentrates on the money.

"I always thought I'd give up because I'm not into drugs or alcohol. I love my car more than I like the men. I love shoes and I've got loads of perfume. I'm out here for two hours a night and I'm home before midnight. I have a four-year-old daughter and she thinks I'm a cleaner.

"I love being a mother and I want to buy her things and take her to Orana Park."

Before the quakes she could make $800 on a busy night, now a good night might be $600.

Reed, a former sex worker herself, quit the industry at 58 and now nearly 70, she champions their rights.

The location wasn't always Manchester St. Less than 25 years ago, the street workers would be near Cashel St, on the corner of Colombo and Hereford. Slowly they migrated east along Hereford and out to Manchester where they would stand as far south as Liverpool St until other girls started throwing water-filled condoms at them from massage parlour windows to mark territory.

The street workers soon ventured north but, every time a bar opened on a corner, they had to move just that bit further up the road.

The quake changed the landscape entirely. The city length of Manchester St was inside the cordon so, like other businesses in the Red Zone, they set up shop elsewhere.

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Reed stands on tip-toes in the Prostitutes' Collective's office in Sydenham. The lower shelves have condoms, lubricant and sponge tampons, countless pamphlets on sexual health, law and social services, but the wooden-framed photographs are just out of reach.

Suzie Sutherland, murdered and left in a vacant lot in 2005.

Another (whose name was suppressed at trial), raped and murdered in the Christchurch Squash Club car park later the same year.

Mallory Manning, murdered and dumped in the Avon River in 2008 (the trial is scheduled for May). Sarah, who committed suicide. Donna, who died of an infection.

Reed abhors the headlines following these cases.

"It's sex worker until one is murdered, then it's 'slain prostitute'. You never see 'slain office worker' or 'slain baker'."

Since the Prostitution Reform Act 2003, Reed says they are "safer in many ways", able to refuse a client, insist on a condom and they no longer have to register with police.

The Christchurch City Council is currently discussing a bylaw similar to that in Auckland which restricts where street workers and brothels can operate.

Reed and the police both agree the best way to manage the workers is through regular contact and communication. She has an invaluable bulk text system, "the girls call it Pro-Text". About 350 numbers are in the system receiving texts about up-coming health clinics, counselling sessions or as an instant warning.

"One night recently a women reported a rape and attack, we were able to text out the information. Another girl came back saying the same thing had happened to her so we are able to build a whole picture," Reed says.

"Some think they are six foot tall and bulletproof, that they can always suss someone out but how do you really know?

"Or people yell abuse or throw eggs at them as they drive by. Unfortunately some think that's just part of the job but it is a woman in her workplace.

"People just think they have sex 24/7 but she's someone's partner, friend, daughter. Have some respect.

"People have seen too many American movies with gangstery- type pimps where the women have no choice about handing over all their money and keeping them on drugs. Most women on the streets here work for themselves, or with a minder.

"But we do have to remind them a good minder is one who has a car, their cellphone charged - with credit on it - and a pen and paper to take down a licence plate.

"We never really had a male presence out there until the Suzie Sutherland murder in 2005 but suddenly people felt vulnerable and a male presence has been there ever since."

Reed says Kiwis have a good history of condom use but some other cultures see it as an insult.

As the city expects a cultural change through the rebuild, Reed is advocating workers make sure to stand up to their right to use protection.

Reed says they are lucky to have people who are good friends to the workers.

One is Father David Moore, the vicar of St Luke's in the City. Each year the church hosts a gathering on December 17, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. It is celebrated with a small barbecue and light-hearted award ceremony with awards for things like being welcoming to newcomers and picking up condoms. Reed acknowledges underage workers are a problem but they are "in there boots and all" with the Youth and Cultural Development Centre when they find out.

Discarded condoms are a large problem too and she is working with the council and property developers on this issue.

Meanwhile, upper St Albans residents face noise and drug paraphernalia while the CBD remains cordoned.

Senior Sergeant Gordon Spite was head of the beat section at the time of the quake and liaison between police and the prostitutes. He learned why the town side of Manchester St had worked - it had a crime camera, passing pedestrians, traffic and ambient lighting from the buildings.

"Take that away and it's just one streetlight making it very dark. There were not many cars and the whole environment changed, the girls were a bit more nervous.

"I've seen them get a hard time. You might think what they do is pretty poor but they're still people and we want to hear from them if they are being victimised in any way.

"The best thing is to be recognised as not just a uniform. You go on foot and talk. It's an old phrase but it really is just good old- fashioned policing."

Juggling street workers and the rest of the population who share the space has always been tough.

He says the problems are not so much with the girls. "It's more their hangers-on and clients. You've got to have a level of trust - and that goes both ways - because it is a dangerous environment. The industry is entirely dependent on the people who use it and has a lot of associated crime - drink- driving, assaults, disorderly behaviour and a certain amount of drugs.

"We don't turn a blind eye. I expect them to work within the law. You don't go on the street when there's a warrant for your arrest or behave in a disorderly fashion but prostitution is not illegal so we are there to keep the law," Spite says.

"I can't think too many people end up in this industry through choice and I've been to a few memorials over the years.

"When we're on the beat section we are responsible for our little part of the world and that includes those women on Manchester St."

The Press