WHEN darkness falls, two bright and caring young women take to the streets of Blackburn, wearing hoodies and trainers, seeking out the town’s prostitutes.

Shona Langley, a street sex worker support officer, and Charlotte Crossland, a harm reduction nurse, are building bridges in a bid to provide a safe environment for those they view with sympathy.

Their work comes under the umbrella of the Harm Reduction project, run by Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust — and twice a week they’re out at night providing outreach support to women aged from 18 to over 50.

They load their van with such requisites as condoms, panic alarms, needles and bank note checker pens, while Charlotte offers Hepatitis B and other vaccinations, as well as treatment for minor health issues, while urging them to seek care for any major problem.

Their night time excursions are also a way of extending the rapport they have built up with the women over the last three years, since the project was launched and the ‘office hours’ support service they offer at their base, the Jarman Centre in James Street.

The two encourage street sex workers to visit regularly to discuss issues, be it general or sexual health, or social matters such as housing and benefits.

Shona said: “We don’t judge. We are not here to criticise or bully them into stopping what they do. Our role is to support them in any way.

“It’s all about harm reduction, about being safe while doing what they are doing.”

She added: “When the project first started, we found that most sex workers needed the money to fund addictions. Now some are taking to the streets because they have to fund college courses, pay for housing or supplement their benefits.

“There are regular sex workers and opportunist workers — if their income doesn’t cover their outgoings, they take the best opportunity to make ends meet.

“It’s money for survival and I believe it takes guts to do what they do.”

Over the past three years, she says there has been a 20 per cent increase in the number of street sex workers in Blackburn, but believes there is not a major problem in the town.

She said: “The archetypal image is of scantily dressed girls hanging around street corners but that’s not the case and those here in Blackburn would not be all that obvious to a passer-by.

“We have come to know the areas in which they work, but sometimes we can go out at night and see no-one.”

Thanks to the trust they have built up, Shona and Charlotte also encourage the sex workers to report any abuse they have suffered, from verbal lashings to severe beatings, so that information can be shared.

It’s part of a scheme called Ugly Mugs, which runs nationally and has proved so successful in Blackburn, that the team has recently won an award for its endeavours.

Since July 2010, the sex workers have reported 50 incidents of abuse and details of the perpetrators are sent out round the country and to the police.