Just before midnight, three people in their late teens or early twenties load a Honda minivan with supplies. This might sound like the beginning of a zany road trip, but it's not. The minivan belongs to a group called HIPS, which stands for Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive. One of the supplies they're loading is a giant box of condoms.
HIPS's mission is to make the lives of D.C.'s prostitutes safer and easier. Three nights a week, the group's staffers and volunteers drive the van to places where sex workers work, often in some of the most dangerous parts of town.
The life of a D.C. prostitute
The trick to doing this kind of work is to be positive, but not too positive, says Jenna Mellor, HIPS team leader.
"We meet people where they're at," she says. "If someone is sad, we will sit in that sad moment with them. If someone is frustrated, we would never say something like, 'Oh, it's OK! Don't worry!' Or like some trite, positive statement. What we want to do is add."
To maintain their clients' confidentiality, HIPS asked WAMU not to record these encounters. But there were a few sex workers who said they wanted to talk on the record. One was a transgender woman who goes by the name Uzi.
Uzi works downtown, in an area where many transgender women operate. She says life as a prostitute isn't actually that crazy.
"My day-to-day life is actually the same as everyone else's," she says. "I get up in the morning. I read. I'm into mysteries. I love CSI, Law & 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 what makes her job more difficult than any of that, she says, is the police.
"We are more of a target from the police than the dates," Uzi says. "We're more worried about the police harassing us than the dates are. Because the police come out here and they'll lock us up. Like, 13 of us are locked up now. Like, they want to send undercovers out here to bust us and everything. But what's the point of that? Because as soon as we get out, we're going to be right back here doing it again."
Prostitution moves to residential neighborhoods
There's a reason why sex workers have been feeling more police pressure, says Cyndee Clay, executive director of HIPS. Five years ago, the D.C. Council passed a law allowing the police to designate certain streets or neighborhoods "prostitution-free zones." In these zones, officers can make arrests with a lower burden of proof. So far, most of the prostitution-free zones have been downtown, and Clay says that's had some surprising effects.
"Since the institution of the free zones, we're having to travel a much wider circle around the city," says Clay. "We can't reach all of the neighborhoods we're trying to reach in one night. We're traveling upwards of 50 miles an evening just to reach the populations that we need to reach, and we're in much more residential neighborhoods."
Clay says the prostitution-free zone law didn't get rid of prostitution in the District. The law simply moved it from downtown to the outskirts of the city. The Metropolitan Police Department refused to grant an interview for this story, but an analysis of the District's crime data shows that Clay is right.
According to the data, the share of prostitution-related arrests in D.C.'s Ward 2, the ward that contains most of downtown, has seen a 10 percent drop in the past decade. Meanwhile, in Ward 7, the ward east of the Anacostia River, the share of arrests has more than tripled.
"We now have prostitution running rampant east of the river," says D.C. Council member Yvette Alexander, who represents Ward 7. She has introduced an amendment that would make the prostitution-free zone law even stronger. Right now, the zones can last no longer than 10 days, so prostitutes can wait out a free zone. Under her amendment, the sex workers would have to leave the area completely.
Several other cities have their own versions of prostitution-free zones, but it's unclear if any city has ever tried making them permanent. At-large Council member Phil Mendelson is worried the amendment won't hold up in court.
"The Supreme Court has consistently held that anti-loitering statutes are unconstitutional, that in America people have a right to stand on a corner if they want to, for whatever reason," he says.
Mendelson says he isn't opposed to temporary prostitution free-zones, as long as the people arrested are offered treatment and are not just shuffled through the legal system. Clay says aggressive police tactics have saddled more sex workers with criminal records, making it harder for them to find legal jobs. She says the free-zone law has been full of unintended consequences.
"It's bad public health, it's bad social policy," says Clay. "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."
Sex workers: Living risky lives in the shadows
At a little after 5 a.m., the HIPS minivan leaves downtown and drives through a notoriously violent neighborhood in Northeast D.C. Mellor says this area is where many sex workers have come to avoid getting caught in the free zone.
"As you can see, it has less markers of safety, which is streetlights, which is police, which is people on the streets who can be your eyes and ears if something happens," Mellor says.
The atmosphere here is much different than in downtown. Hardly anyone stays and talks with the HIPS team. Most people 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 the group is seeing roughly the same number of sex workers on the streets now as there was a decade ago. The difference is now they're more likely to get a criminal record and more likely to be working in a violent area. The sex workers are more isolated and more at risk. But they're less visible.
David Schultz is a graduate student at American University. WAMU is licensed to American University.
[Music: "California Dreaming" by Sungha Jung from Perfect Blue]
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the prostitution data relative to Wards 2 and 7. The percentage of the city's total prostitution arrests occurring in Ward 2 has decreased over the past decade, while the percentage of the total number of arrests occuring in Ward 7 has increased.
Photos: D.C. Prostitution
Prostitution By Ward Since 2001
MPD Prostitution Data AnalysisMPD Data Analysis