Nobody is at the point of no return

As part of our series celebrating £70 million in grants awarded, we spoke to Pippa Hockton, Founder of Street Talk, a counselling service for women who are trapped in street-based prostitution. We’ve been working with Pippa for over ten years and know just how passionate she is about the social injustices many vulnerable women face. It’s a hidden side to our city that Pippa bears witness to every day.

What’s your first memory of London?

I was born in Manchester and went to school in Birmingham, so the first time I came to London was for my eleventh birthday as a treat from my mother. It was the most exciting day of my life. Getting off the tube at Trafalgar Square made my hair stand on end. I fell in love with London that day, and have never stopped loving it.

What inspired you to set up StreetTalk? 

When I was a practising psychotherapist, I was acutely aware that those accessing therapy could have afforded to pay privately. The inequality was clear even then. It’s not to say that well-educated and mentally well people shouldn’t be able to get therapy, but it wasn’t what I trained for, and I knew I had to do something to help those who needed it most.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given? 

I was given lots of advice not to do this, both from a clinical point of view (“these women won’t engage”) and a fundraising angle too. If I’d known ahead of time all the challenges I’d face – public speaking, asking for money, asking for favours - I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to go ahead. I ignored this advice, and to this day I enjoy what I do in spite of the fact that it’s hard. You see the way people are treated, at this horrible intersection between bureaucracy and vulnerability, and that’s painful. But I love what I do and it’s what keeps me going.

What would you do if you were Mayor for the day?

I would invite the entire Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet to City Hall to hear from women who’ve had benefits sanctions, and as a result have no recourse to public funds or services. If they could hear directly from these women and see just how vulnerable they are – they live in the shadows, as vulnerable as illegal immigrants – they would see what an inconceivable social injustice is being played out.

When we think about people on the street, we often think of the cold, or the hygiene, but the real danger is how defenceless people are when they don’t have a roof over their head. One of my clients was very intelligent, could have gone to university, until she had her benefits frozen as a result of failing to reply to a letter. She was in hospital at the time, but consequently found herself evicted. She was beaten on the street so badly that she suffered brain damage and now struggles to read and write.

People with influence and connections need to see this. They have the power to change it.

Your favourite London discovery?

E. Pellicci on the Bethnal Green Road. It’s my office (!) and a great spot for meetings.

Biggest change you’ve witnessed in London? 

Brixton got posh! I used to live on the Effra Road a long time ago, and my son was born there. It’s still one of my favourite corners of London, but it’s changed beyond recognition.

Your proudest moment?

At a hostel in Brixton, I met a lady whose heroin addiction had given her ulcers on her legs. The ulcers got infected and doctors said they’d have to amputate. She refused the operation, said she’d rather die. With two months to live, a spark in her ignited and by setting herself tiny goals, she turned things around one step at a time. Beyond clinical explanation, her will to live and personal determination triumphed. She is now abstinent, not sex working and lives in the community with a small family, including one child she got back from the state care system. It saved her life getting her child back from care, and it was incredible to be a witness to that. 

It taught me that it’s never OK to give up on somebody. Nobody is at the point of no return.