MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We head back to Earth now to the streets of D.C. for a story that takes this week's Out In the Cold theme in a very different direction. D.C. has adopted some of the toughest anti-prostitution laws in the country and the city council is weighing a measure that would make those laws even tougher. But as David Schultz reports, advocates for the District's sex workers say these laws only push prostitutes into the shadows and leave many out in the cold. And a warning to our listeners, some of the content in this story may not be appropriate for children.
MR. DAVID SCHULTZ
It's just before midnight and three people, all in their late teens or early 20s, are loading a Honda minivan with supplies.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1
Do we have hot chocolate?
This might sound like the beginning of a zany road trip, but it definitely is not. The minivan belongs to a group called HIPS, which stands for Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive. And those supplies getting loaded into the van...
MR. JOSH INGLE
We have our giant box of condoms, several different kinds, Magnums, Lifestyle XL, et, cetera.
That's Josh Ingle, a 19-year-old HIPS volunteer. The mission of HIPS is to make the lives of D.C.'s prostitutes safer and easier. So three nights a week, HIPS staffers and volunteers drive this van to places where sex workers work, often some of the most dangerous parts of town. Jenna Mellor is tonight's team leader.
MR. JENNA MELLOR
Hey, do you want any condoms or candy or water?
She says the trick to doing this kind of work is to be positive, but not too positive.
We meet people where they're at. If someone is sad, we will sit in that sad moment with them. If someone is frustrated, we're not -- we would never say something like, oh, like, it's okay. Don't worry, like some, like, trite positive saying. What we want to do is add.
To maintain its client's confidentiality, HIPS asked us not to record these encounters. But there were a few people, a few sex workers in fact, who said they wanted to talk on the record. One was a transgendered woman who goes by the name Uzi.
Like, the Uzi off the gun ya'll.
Uzi works downtown in an area where many transgendered women operate. She says life as a prostitute, working on the streets, isn't actually that crazy.
No, my day to day life is actually the same as everyone else. I get up in the morning, I read. I'm into mysteries. I love "CSI", "Law and Order" and my favorite show is "House."
But Uzi has no illusions about her job. She knows it's unsafe. She says robberies are common and her Johns or dates, as she calls them, can sometimes be abusive. But Uzi says, what makes her job really difficult, more than any of that, is the police.
We are more of a target from the police than the dates. We are more worried about the police harassing us than the dates are. You know what I'm saying? Because the police come out here and they'll lock us up. Like, 13 of us are locked up now because they want to send undercovers out here, you know, to bust us and everything. But what's the point of that because as soon as we get right back out, we're going to be doing it again.
The police are within their rights to target Uzi and her colleagues, of course. Prostitution is illegal. But Kelly Bright, another transgendered woman who also works downtown, says the police only seem interested in arresting prostitutes, not protecting them.
MS. KELLY BRIGHT
Ya'll come out here and tell us to be safe and all that and all that. Okay, thank you and all that. But the question is, when we call ya'll, ya'll never there.
We contacted the police department spokeswoman multiple times for a response but she wouldn't grant us an interview. Bright is trying to get out of the prostitution business. But she says, with so few places willing to hire a trans-gender person, sex work is the only way she can pay her bills.
I'm doing some stuff now to try to get my little life and stuff together and everything, but, you know, I'm doing it because I finally realized I'm tired.
MS. CYNDEE CLAY
People who live in this area who have no other access to economic means, you know, will do sex work because it's sometimes the thing of last resort.
Cyndee Clay is the executive director of HIPS. She says there's a reason why Uzi, Kelly and the other sex workers who operate downtown have been feeling pressure from the police. The D.C. Council passed a law five years ago, designed to crack down on parts of the city known to be prostitution hot spots. The law allows the police department to designate certain streets, prostitution free zones.
In these zones, officers have the power to make arrests with a lower burden of proof. So far, most of the prostitution free zones have been located in the downtown urban core of the district. And Clay says, that's had some surprising effects. She said she first noticed them when HIPS had to change the route of its nightly outreach missions.
Since the institution of the free zones, we're having to travel a much wider circle around the city. We can't reach all of the neighborhoods that we're trying to reach in one night. We're traveling upward of 50 miles an evening just to kind of reach all the populations that we need to reach and we're in much more residential, much more residential neighborhoods.
Clay says the prostitution free zone law hasn't eliminated or reduced prostitution in the district, the simply moved it from downtown to the outskirts of the city. And based on a WAMU analysis of D.C. crime data, Clay is right. Over the past decade, the share of arrests that took place in ward two went down by 10 percent. That's the ward that contains most of downtown. Meanwhile in ward seven, East of the Anacostia River, the share of prostitution arrests has more than tripled.
MS. YVETTE ALEXANDER
We now have prostitution running rampid East of the River.
D.C. Council Member Yvette Alexander represents ward seven. Prostitution running rampant is the kind of thing that makes business owners and home owners get their council member on the phone and give her an earful. So Alexander is introducing an amendment that would make the prostitution free zone law even stronger. Right now, the zones can last no longer then 10 days. Alexander's amendment would allow them to go on indefinitely. Alexander says, now prostitutes can just wait out a zone, under her amendment...
They're going to have to leave the area completely. So, you know, we're thinking, either you make a decision, if, you know, there are going to be these prostitution free zones, then that's my cue that I need to get out of the prostitution business.
Several other cities have their own version of prostitution free zones, but it's unclear if any city has ever tried making them permanent. At-large Councilman Phil Mendelson says he's worried the amendment won't hold up in court.
MR. PHIL MENDELSON
The Supreme Court has consistently held that anti-loitering statutes are unconstitutional. That, in America, people have a right to stand on the corner if they want to, for whatever reason.
Mendelson isn't opposed to temporary prostitution free zones. He says, they can be affective tools for high crime areas, as long as the people arrested are offered treatment and not just shuffle through the legal system. But according to data from local prosecutors, that's exactly what's been happening. More than 90 percent of all prostitution related arrests last year led to formal charges being filed with the U.S. Attorney's office. Cyndee Clay, the executive director of HIPS says, the free zone law has been full of unintended consequences.
It just comes down to the fact that this is just bad public health. It's public health, it's bad social policy, it's not even effective judicial policy because we're not giving people the tools that they need to change their life or to make a change. We're just re-incarcerating the same people over and over again for the same thing.
It's just after 5:00 in the morning and the HIPS minivan has left downtown. It's now driving through a notoriously violent neighborhood in Northeast D.C. Jenna Mellor, the HIPS team leader says this is where many sex workers have come to avoid getting caught in a free zone.
And as you can see, it has less, like, markers of safety, which is street lights, which is police, which is people on the streets who can be your eyes and ears for -- if something happens.
The tone here is much different than in downtown. Hardly anyone stays and talks with the HIPS team. They mostly just take their brown paper bags full of supplies and leave. They look visibly afraid. HIPS keeps track of every sex worker it encounters and it says there's roughly the same number on the streets now as there was a decade ago. It's just now they're more likely to get a criminal record and more likely to be working in a violent area. They're more isolated and more at risk, but they're less visible. I'm David Schultz.
To see the data about the shifting nature of prostitution in the District and to see where your ward fits into the picture, visit our website, metroconnection.org. Time now for a quick break, but when we get back, building bridges, literally and metaphorically, between D.C. neighborhoods.
MR. JOHN LYLE
Well, you know, I sort of think about this bridge as a neighborhood street that happens to cross a river.
That and more coming your way on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5
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