In the coming weeks, Portland City Council will take into consideration policy recommendations put forth by a committee formed to address prostitution on 82nd Avenue.
The 82nd Avenue Prostitution Advisory Committee issued the 62-page report Wednesday to City Council, outlining a plan to address why the neighborhood draws prostitutes and johns, and to more effectively get prostitutes to social services to keep them from returning to the streets.
City commissioners lauded the report's authors with praise for tackling such a controversial issue in such a progressive way.
"I want to treat everybody the way I would like to be treated … and not just people doing well in life," Commissioner Randy Leonard said. "I'd hope I'd never end up homeless, drug addicted or so helpless that I'd be cast aside by society."
He commended city and county leaders for not bowing to pressure to simply continue issuing exclusion citations to suspected prostitutes, driving the trade further underground or into other neighborhoods.
Nearly every government agency in the region is working to address the problem. To adequately reduce prostitution, the report recommends the continuation of New Options for Women -- a police-funded Lifeworks NW program only open to those involved with the criminal justice system; expansion of housing for women; creation of a "John School" similar to sex offender treatment programs; and to expand asset seizure laws for those engaging in "trafficking in persons" or "involuntary servitude" as defined by the Oregon Legislature, as well as other recommendations.
Several members of the Sex Workers Outreach Coalition say the current system doesn't work to address the dangers and discrimination faced by those in prostitution and recommended additional ways to help people in the sex industry.
Representatives with the Sex Worker Outreach Coalition say programs need to help women escape poverty and homelessness, not just prostitution; include a "housing first" model; provide alternative programs and services, not just those available to prostitutes who have been charged with a crime; and bring in qualified outside experts to evaluate the success of any given program.
Crystal Tenty, of the Coalition, says the Lifeworks NW program should accept women who are ready to change their lives, not just those who are compelled into the program when they are facing jail time.
"I encounter five to seven women a month who are desperate for services to leave the sex industry," Tenty told City Commissioners. "But their individual circumstances make them not eligible."
The report outlined many reasons why prostitution flourishes on 82nd Avenue. By studying johns – those men that utilize the services of a prostitute – authors of the study realized the business development, relative crime rate and traffic flow patterns all contribute to a neighborhood's attractiveness to street walking. The avenues multiple traffic lights, low speed limit, proximity of side streets, multiple motels and bars all contribute to an environment that appeals to the age-old business.
The report's authors say a large part of deterring prostitution is public attitudes and have defined nearly all positions in the prostitution business – from johns to prostitutes to pimps -- as exploitative, abused or deviant in the report. They call on funding a $100,000 public relations campaign to craft public attitudes. During the council meeting, it was revealed that many jurors believe prostitution to be a victimless crime and have exercised their right of jury nullification in many cases.
Nearly half of all men arrested for soliciting prostitutes are Hispanic, which the report calls on to investigate further. It's unclear whether police are profiling Hispanics or if Hispanic males tend to visit prostitutes more often due to "an unbalanced sex ratio."
There is currently a multi-pronged offensive against prostitution – from federal authorities, local police, district attorney's office, county and city government and nonprofit groups. Local police have a unit dedicated to targeting prostituted persons; the FBI is conducting a nationwide sting on sex trafficking, with a focus on providing services to underage girls, as well as those who have since turned 18. Adult prostitutes are typically charged with crimes; critics say this blurs the line of the "victim" label given by the report's authors and the "perpetrator" status they receive within the criminal justice system. Experts say most prostitutes are compelled or enter into prostitution before the age of 13. The report also says the older a prostituted person becomes, the easier it is to compel them out of the profession. Most prostitutes entering housing programs are over age 30.
Valerie Newman, a former sex worker, told commissioners had she been offered assistance programs sooner, her physical and emotional scars would have healed long before changing her life two years ago. She is now attending literature classes at PCC and receiving "honors grades."
Commissioner Dan Saltzman says it's cooperation that can make this work in the long-run.
"Never before have I seen another issue borne out of contention that has produced such a thoughtful and substantive report," he said.
Funding for the Lifeworks NW program costs $250,000. Policing efforts cost another $250,000. The report says simply arresting prostitutes – a practice that yields a 92 percent recidivism rate – would cost about $255,000 a year for the jail space alone, in perpetuity. For the cost of 26 inmates in a month, a residential Lifeworks NW style program can accommodate 100 people, and provide a nearly 92 percent success rate (8 percent recidivism rate after one year).
To view a copy of the report, visit www.neighborhoodnotes.com.