Prostitutes who want to escape from life on the streets can get help from a new project which offers a halfway house for those who want to make the break
the house is in a leafy Manchester suburb, set discreetly back from a pleasant, tree-lined street. There is no sign on the dark green door to identify it as the Bethany Project - a refuge for women seeking to escape prostitution, the only one of its kind in the country. The project is trying to keep its location secret as long as possible, to avoid unwelcome attention from angry pimps.

Inside, the house is pin-neat and cosy. The ceilings are high, with elegant cornicing; this must once have been a very smart residence indeed. More recently it was a hotel, and the refuge has kept the swirly brown Seventies carpet and honey-brown Dralon suite in the lounge. In the kitchen, freshly decorated in cheerful yellow and blue, Susy Brouard, 27, one of three full-time staff members, is making coffee. The house has been open since May; Susy, a fresh-faced, rosy, Emma Thompson lookalike, has been involved from the start.

The contrast between her and Lisa (not her real name) could not be greater. Lisa, still only 18, is recovering from four years of drug and alcohol abuse and prostitution. Slight, pale, with long henna'd hair, she smokes nervously as she talks, perched on the edge of the sofa. "Before this, I was at a treatment centre trying to get clean from drugs - I was on heroin, crack, anything. There was a pimp who was offering me drugs, but then like, once he'd got me on the streets, he started forcing me to stay there, I couldn't get away from it and my addiction got worse. I was living on floors in friends' flats, anywhere really. I was getting in trouble all the time, my health was getting bad.

"It was a hard decision but I went to Druglink. They applied to a methadone clinic and they put me on a prescription while I waited to go into detox. I was in there for 11, 12 weeks - I relapsed twice. I went to a rehab centre and tried to get stronger. It was my decision to come on to here."

The staff at Bethany encourage guests to keep up treatment and therapy, as well as learning how to budget, cook and look after themselves. "I'm going to AA meetings and making new friends," Lisa says. "I try to do as many meetings as I can - some days I don't want to go, but that makes me really bored. I don't have anything to do with my old friends, anything associated with drugs now. I have been tempted to go back. It has helped coming here; when I get depressed and old ideas start going through my head, I've got someone to talk to. The people here are dead helpful. Sometimes I think they don't understand what I'm going through, but they're always there for me.

"Before, I wasn't living - it wasn't a life. This is life. Now I want to go to college and get a job; I want to study hairdressing. I have got a lot of hope. There should be other places like this - there's nowhere to go, that's what kept me out there, really."

Work began on the Bethany project a year ago. The idea came from a Catholic nun of the Good Shepherd order, which works with prostitutes. "She was working for an organisation in central Manchester that does outreach work, and the prostitute women she was working alongside asked her for somewhere safe to go while they made the break from prostitution," says Susy Brouard.

Another staff member is Sister Consolata, 63, also a Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherds are active all over the world, and the Bethany Project is modelled on Genesis House, run by the Chicago Good Shepherds since 1984. Sister Consolata, cheerful, white-haired and Irish, is known simply as Con. "We became aware of the need on the streets, women saying if only they had a safe place to redirect their lives, and we looked around in this country - there was nothing. So we thought of the sisters in Chicago and the Genesis project," she says.

The house is free of alcohol and drugs, and guests are discouraged from sexual relationships while staying there, but there is no evangelical undercurrent. "Christianity gives some of us our inspiration and energy, but that's as far as it goes," Con says. "We are not here to force anything on anybody."

With Catriona Roussel, who is the housing manager, they staff the refuge 24 hours a day, helped by a team of 30 volunteers. The project can offer accommodation for up to eight women, in single rooms - small, but clean and comfortable. The community is funded by the Joseph Cox Charity, a local trust that also runs a refuge for homeless men; this money is topped up by housing benefit contributions paid for each woman.

Manchester police estimate around 300 prostitutes work the city's red light districts, but the refuge is open to any woman in need. The centre's first residential visitor, Vicki, (not her real name), 17, was from Yorkshire. She left to return to her parents and go on to study at a local college. She had been earning pounds 1,000 a week; the final straw that drove her to the refuge came when her pimp threatened to tie a rope round her neck, tie it to the bumper of his car, and drive off.

Working with prostitutes is fraught with politically correct minefields. "We have had some hostility from other groups who think we're encouraging people to leave prostitution," Susy says. "We're not making any judgement on prostitution. The ethos is giving women space and time and empowering them to make their own decisions. There were missions to prostitutes in previous centuries and they always started from a 'you are bad, you need saving' basis. We don't do that."

Women can stay hours or months. "We say straight away, 'Our job here is not to keep you in. You are free to leave if you want.' It's not a prison." In fact, the staff are at pains to ensure their guests don't get too settled. "We have to get the balance right - ensure that they don't get too dependent on us. We're always moving on to the point when they will be able to leave and live their own lives."

Although the office is busy, the rest of the house is strangely quiet. There are eight rooms at the centre. For the project to be financially viable, it needs to house five or six women at a time. At the moment only two rooms are occupied; since May, only five women have used the refuge. Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes is not surprised. "Prostitute women, in general, shy away from places specifically for prostitute women. No one wants to be segregated. I'm sure this project is well-intentioned, but the fundamental problem is the lack of economic support for women. For example, what's the point in teaching them how to budget, if they are going to have to budget with nothing? Most prostitute women work to support themselves and their children - to pay the bills."

Decriminalising prostitution is essential, she argues. "If you really want to help women off the streets, that is the first step. Some women estimate 80 per cent of their earnings goes in paying fines - that's a very high tax rate."

She adds that it is important not to treat prostitutes as a separate group. "Many women see working as a prostitute as no worse than factory work or cleaning - and there are no rescue schemes for women who work in those areas. Some of the services that Bethany provides are clearly useful. Help with welfare, benefits, the DSS, rehousing, are all crucial, but they are very important for all people who are struggling to make ends meet. And it's good that the project is a way out for those who want out - that they are not trying to force women to leave prostitution. But I think they have a responsibility to see that they are meeting a genuine need, rather than providing what they think prostitutes ought to want."

Susy Brouard believes the Bethany house fills a gap. "Since Aids has become an issue, there are specific projects to see to the needs of prostitutes," she says. "But I see them cynically, as set up to prevent prostitutes who are HIV-positive infecting middle-class men and their wives. Of course the people who run the schemes are genuine, but projects like needle exchanges don't get to the heart of the problem."

Whether the project willl eventually be a succes, time will tell. But the volunteers who help to run it are enthusiastic and hopeful. Rachel, 23, who has just completed a fine art degree and also works in an old people's home, has been a volunteer for three months. "I heard about it from a friend who's also a volunteer. I'm a recovering alcoholic and addict myself - I was never a prostitute, but I was going that way, so I can understand a bit of what Lisa's going through." The exchange goes both ways. "It helps me understand better what I'm going through myself and stops me thinking about my stuff. You've got to give it away to keep it, and that's the way it works."

The Bethany Project is on 0161-445 0311.