It is an arterial route from Birmingham to the Black Country – one which is brimming with culture and replete with boutiques, jewellers, fast-food joints and grocery stores.
But with such a huge footfall commuting through the area day in day out, Handsworth’s notorious Soho Road is a magnet for sex workers at night.
There are more than two dozen girls selling themselves on the strip – with one prostitute well-known for charging just £2.50 for sex, I was told.
From around 9pm every night, the vulnerable women venture out in their numbers, desperate to earn petty cash from kerb-crawling men.
Many have travelled miles across Birmingham just to be here in the city’s prostitute hotspot, safe in the knowledge it is jam-packed with thousands of passing customers – if nothing else.
Women from areas such as Alum Rock, Smethwick and Erdington flock to the bustling one-mile stretch every night to sell sex to strangers.
Some do it just feed a crippling drug habit, while other Eastern European girls do it to send cash back to their families.
It is the ‘job’ where they can make the “most money”, they often tell police, as officers try to offer support.
One hungry sex worker caught loitering and approaching passing drivers told how she turned to prostitution so she could afford to eat after her benefits stopped.
Other prostitutes of Soho Road previously revealed how their addiction to heroin and crack cocaine was the only reason they do it.
And in shocking footage above, filmed during the Summer, the two sex workers explain how they often cry during sex, ‘but the dirty b***** carry on’.
But it’s not just the girls who are suffering.
A street lined with drug addicts offering sex to men in cars, Soho Road and its eclectic businesses are being dragged through the mud as the problem runs rife.
“It puts people off passing trade, especially small businesses,” an officer explains.
“It leaves an leaves an impression on people passing through to see sex workers and the effect it has on them.
“Especially as some physically look like they’re suffering from alcohol and drug abuse.”
Now, West Midlands Police is heading up a vital operation to provide a long-term solution to the prostitution.
Operation Daytona was launched initially to educate kerb crawlers. But the preventative op also sees officers try to deter and protect the sex workers themselves.
Prostitutes caught loitering on Soho Road and the adjoining back streets are given warnings and encouraged to go home.
They are then handed leaflets and offered support from police partnership group – Safe Project.
If they persist in soliciting and do not co-operate with officers, this can lead to arrests and prosecution.
Meanwhile, the kerb crawlers are warned too, and offered speed-awareness style courses which educate them about the sex workers’ vulnerabilities.
On Friday night, we watched as a dozen prostitutes and kerb crawlers were rumbled by a group of neighbourhood officers devoted to clamping down on Soho Road’s sex work.
This is what happened as we spent six hours out on Soho Road with West Midlands Police.
Prostitutes of Soho Road
9pm – Operation Daytona
Arrive at Thornhill Road Police Station in Handsworth where there are around 10-15 officers assigned to an Operation Daytona to tackle sex work on the notorious Soho Road.
9.30pm – Kerb crawlers and prostitutes targeted
Myself and two neighbourhood officers, Harvinder and Leah, head to the police van to begin operation Daytona.
Harvinder ensures we have our seat belts on as he says “the nature of this operation means we may have to stop cars.”
It is a preventative operation aimed mainly at those who use sex workers’ services but also the prostitutes themselves.
They run it as often as they can as the officers say it is an “important area of work” for Handsworth.
However it depends on the priorities at the time and whether they can be abstracted from their many other neighbourhood duties.
The aim is to provide a long term solution to the problem of sex work on Soho Road – by offering programmes to kerb crawlers and support for the vulnerable sex workers.
9.45pm – ‘Clients’ educated in ‘driving awareness style’ programmes
Offenders caught using the prostitutes’ services are given warnings and in some cases, offered educational programmes.
These work like drivers awareness courses, Leah says, in the way that it depends on the kerb crawlers’ previous offences.
They will then be invited to be interviewed on the matter and police will decide depending on various factors whether they are “eligible”.
These programmes aim to educate the offenders about the sex workers vulnerabilities and the effect selling their body has on their mental health.
9.50pm – Prostitutes warned
The prostitutes are given warnings for loitering first and then preventative measures are put in place.
Many of the girls are dependent on alcohol or drugs, Harvinder says, and so rehabilitation is a vital step to prevent reoffending.
They will be pointed in the direction of partnership agencies who can set them up at rehabilitation centre.
“If they refuse to co-operate or to help themselves, then we would arrest and prosecute them,” adds Harvinder.
10pm – Local shops suffering
We are doing a loop of the area, mainly Soho Road as this – as well as side roads leading from the major route – is where the problem is most prevalent.
As a busy commuter road in and out of Birmingham and into the Black Country, Soho Road sees a vast amount of drivers pass through every day.
It is packed with unique shops open 24 hours – another factor which makes this major road a hive of activity day and night.
But the arterial route is becoming a street with bad reputation as sex workers loiter down the street every night.
Harvinder explains: “It leaves an impression on people passing through to see sex workers and the effect it has on them.
“Especially as some physically look like they’re suffering from alcohol and drug abuse.
“It has a negative impact on businesses in the area, especially small businesses as it puts off passing trade.”
10.30pm – Two girls and one man
The officers have been radioing each other once they’ve scoped out anyone who seems suspicious.
We were alerted man heading into Waverhill Park with two girls at a park just off Soho Road.
But as the officers headed into the park, the group had already left.
10.45pm – Prostitute warned
We have just spotted a woman loitering on Grove Lane.
She is known to the police, as they gave her a warning just last night when they were carrying out the same operation.
They pull over to her and she says she is doing “nothing wrong”.
Police give her a second warning by the way of encouraging her to head home. “So I won’t be seeing you again loitering in this area?” Harvinder questions.
The officers explain that they will now monitor her after the conversation to ensure she does not continue to sell sex.
“We’ve encouraged her to go home – so depending on what we see next, the warning could escalate.”
11pm – Woman approaching drivers for sex
Officers in a separate vehicle have stopped another woman – who disclosed that she was a sex worker.
She was seen loitering and approaching drivers on Soho Road near to Soho Hill. She was given a street warning and referred to the Safe Project for support.
They will then get in contact with her.
The sex workers are also given leaflets to help provide guidance and details of the Safe Project so they can contact them too.
11.30pm – Car wash used by sex workers
We pass a car wash in Handsworth all in darkness and I wonder if we’ve stopped outside for a reason.
The officers reveal that sex workers have been caught in the act at this very car wash.
“We have encountered sex workers here in the past. And how shall I put this, there’s been ‘evidence’ too that someone’s been there. So that backs up our theory.”
Cops must look at ‘bigger picture’
Operation Daytona and its approach is having a huge impact on the prostitution problem.
Harvinder says: “It does have an impact and the approach is working really well compared to prosecuting them.
“Sometimes we do have to prosecute when they’re not cooperating or not helping themselves.
“But it’s not just about the enforcement of the law, it’s about looking at it as a complete picture.
“Look at the people using the services, and offering them programmes. The ones that are given this education – we don’t see again out here re-offending in the same way.
“And it’s the same with the girls and the rehabilitation programmes – our message is trickling its way down to the girls.
“Girls we used to see six or twelve months ago, we’re not seeing them again. And we’re not seeing the same volume of girls.”
12pm – Prostitutes and men caught together
After a break at the allegedly “very haunted” Thornhill Police Station, I’m glad to get back in the safety of the police van.
We’re doing loops of the area again, particularly down the back streets. But the officers suggest perhaps last nights operation and the increased police patrols has had an impact on tonight’s decreased numbers.
Leah says: “Last night we saw a few girls dropping with vehicles – we stopped both at the same time so it was good to get them both together.
“We took the girls away from the situation to ensure they’re not forced into anything and offer support and a street warning if eligible.
“We took a few kerb crawlers details and issued warnings and voluntary interviews.”
1am – Kerb crawler and prostitute
The officers have been radioing back and forth about a woman they’ve seen loitering around the area a couple of times in the past hour.
She had also been seen approaching a couple of vehicles.
As we drive along Holyhead Road, the officers in another vehicle have the sex worker in the back of their car.
Officers have also stopped the driver of a black car just yards away at the junction of Woodland Road and Holyhead Road.
1.15am – Sex worker walks out in front of police van
As we’re driving down Soho Road we almost hit a sex worker who has suddenly walked out in the road with a man.
Harvinder honks the horn to make them aware that they’re in the way of the vehicle and then the officers realise her face is an all too familiar sight round here.
We pull over to speak to her and she explains that she is just heading to an address with the male. But she is a known sex worker and if the officer see her loitering around again tonight, they will take action.
1.25am – Disorder on Soho Road
We’re in touch with other officers over the radio who seem to need backup so we rush down Soho Road on blue lights.
In the alleyway between the Cross Guns and Silons a dispute has erupted between several men and women. The officers quickly swoop onto the scene to assist the others.
Leah says: “Just a Friday night, someone’s had a bit too much to drink and got a bit animated. They’ve had a disagreement and a heated exchange of words.”
Harvinder adds that in these circumstances blue lights are necessary as it can very quickly lead to something much worse.
1.45am – Police chase taxi driver
I hear a murmur through the radio and all of a sudden we’re speeding off on blue lights down Soho Road.
We begin a short but intense chase of a taxi after a prostitute was seen ‘engaging’ with a man before hopping into a vehicle with him.
The taxi driver parks up on Soho Road, Rose Hill bus stop.
There, a female dressed in a tracksuit with a large handbag comes out of the taxi alongside a man.
She is a known sex worker who police often catch – but this time she has a taxi booking and so they can only offer her support once again.
2am – Hungry prostitute does it for “food”
A prostitute – who has just been given one of many warnings from a plain clothes officer and the Sargent – says she is too hungry to talk as she strolls past the plethora of take-aways and shops.
But the Sargent later reveals that this prostitute claims she is struggling to feed herself. She also says she has been forced to earn cash by selling herself as her benefits haven’t come through for two weeks.
She did have food vouchers, she said, but they have all run out – leaving her starving with nothing to eat.
2.15am – Two more sex workers linger on street corner
Another two prostitutes loiter on the corner of Stafford Road before walking down by the shops.
This is then followed by another woman lingering by the bus stop.
2.30am – “Money, food and drugs”
These are the three reasons the prostitutes of Soho Road do what they do, says Sargent Warren-Smith.
She adds that a proportion off the sex workers are Eastern European – mainly Romanians – who sent the cash back to their family.
They do it because they believe it is the best way to make the “most money”.
And other girls will travel from across the city just to work on Birmingham’s red light strip. Women from Alum Rock, Erdington and Smethwick are just a few examples.
“They will travel because footfall is heavy in the area. I’d say about half of the kerb crawlers are local, but half of them also travel from further afield too, whether or not that’s just for the girls, we can’t be sure.”
It’s also not unusual, she adds, for commuters heading into work at 6am to spot prostitutes loitering on the major route.
She flicks through pages of paperwork – which contains photos and names of each of the known sex workers soliciting on Soho Road and the surrounding side roads.
There are 15 women on the list – and these are just women they have had multiple encounters with in the past few weeks
But it is estimated there is around 25 prostitutes working the strip.