IMAGE: Lukas Ketner
Mayor Tom Potter’s anti-prostitution plan for 82nd Avenue stresses four points: making more arrests, placing sex workers on probation that prevents their immediate return to the street, spending $500,000 for rehabilitation services, and networking with neighborhood-watch groups like the Montavilla community foot patrol.
But outreach workers who work with prostitutes consider the plan Potter unveiled Sept. 11 an uninformed “bridge to nowhere” because its proposals lack basis in research, beyond a cursory police survey of prostitutes.
While those outreach workers are at least pleased Potter isn’t talking about bringing back prostitution-free zones as a solution, some say the new police survey (see “Whore-r Stories,” WW, Sept. 17, 2008) is potentially doing more harm than good.
“You can’t have police officers out there surveying sex workers,” says Crystal Tenty of the Portland Women’s Crisis Line, a hotline and advocacy group for sex-assault victims that includes an outreach program for sex workers. “Many sex workers say that they fear police more than anything else, even more than violence they might face with johns or pimps.”
“What I’d like to see is just sex workers being the ones to say what it is they want,” Tenty says.
Other research worthy of City Hall’s attention is available from Melissa Ditmore, a consultant at New York City’s Urban Justice Center and editor of the academic journal Research for Sex Work.
The Urban Justice Center is one of the few legal advocacy and policy organizations that regularly surveys sex workers. Ditmore says those surveys in New York City of sex workers, along with outreach workers and city officials, showed almost 90 percent of sex workers were homeless and 83 percent were addicted to drugs. Yet most were never offered any social services, such as housing or drug treatment. The study also found that 27 percent of the sex workers reported violence and sexual harassment by police.
Ditmore says her study shows that the best approach to reduce prostitution is to offer sex workers housing and other services such as job training and health care.
Potter defends his approach, saying he trusts police to have good enough community relations to tackle the problem in a timely manner. “Right now, we have a problem the community wants to address,” says Potter spokesman John Doussard, adding that the mayor’s office will put out a request for proposals this week that will let groups apply to set up programs for sex workers.
Sex workers with whom WW spoke say the real problems are poverty, a well-meaning but uneducated bureaucracy, and the frustrating maze of red tape for anyone who’s homeless or has a criminal record. The long-term solution to getting prostitutes off Portland streets, according to both homeless sex workers and outreach teams, is to create services designed for, and preferably by, sex workers.
Linda is a blond, 48-year-old homeless sex worker who stays on the move in the area around 82nd Avenue, living in a tent with her husband (“he hustles too”) and their dog.
She says it’s difficult for homeless people even to get ID when they lack such basic documents as copies of their birth certificate. She also bemoaned the lack of services.
“They are trying to help,” she says. “But we need some kind of office, a drop-in center. And it needs to be run by ex-prostitutes who have made it off the streets, not someone with a bunch of fancy degrees who doesn’t know what to do.”
FACT: Tenty says that there’s one more factor in the NIMBY wars between neighbors and sex workers on 82nd: “A lot of the sex workers actually live in that community. They’re not outsiders.”