BRIAN WONG keeps a logbook of prostitute sightings. As one of the leaders of Southeast neighborhood group Montavilla in Action, Wong organizes prostitution-spotting foot patrols around the 82nd Avenue area. From July to September, his logbook regularly notes eight to 10 prostitutes seen—and reported to the cops—per patrol.
Then, earlier this fall, the Portland Police Bureau and city hall took notice, staging stings with undercover cops. Over 140 arrests later, Wong's logbook reads a lot differently: almost zero prostitutes called in during the end of September.
So where are the prostitutes going?
Not into jail, counseling, or rehab, for starters. The police can only hold arrested prostitutes for an average of five to six hours, and then they're released back onto the streets. And currently, Portland has no social service programs dedicated exclusively to dealing with prostitution. Plus, there's a six-month waiting list for a bed in a women's shelter.
"I get people all the time who call me and say, 'Oh my God, I really want to get out, where can I go get help?'" says Portland Women's Crisis Line outreach worker Crystal Tenty. "Right now there's really nothing available for them."
Prostitution in Portland certainly hasn't disappeared. "Every time you push something down, it has to pop up somewhere else," says James Pond, who runs the Portland-based human trafficking nonprofit Transitions Cambodia. Pond and others who deal with sex workers believe the crackdown on 82nd's streetwalkers hasn't helped women get out of prostitution, but merely moved the business off the street to motels, the internet, or other cities.
Anecdotal evidence backs this up. Until three weeks ago, Craigslist's erotic services section usually had about 1,000 posts a week advertising sex work. Recently, the site has jumped to over 2,000 weekly posts. At a community discussion at Portland Community College's Southeast Portland campus last Tuesday, October 7, former streetwalker turned neighborhood activist Jeri Williams related that five women she knows personally were moved up to Seattle. Their pimp reportedly feared the sudden spotlight thrown on 82nd.
East Precinct Commander Mike Crebs agrees that many pimps are probably moving women elsewhere to escape the heat. But, he says, that means he's doing his job. "Anytime you start making arrests, pimps are going to go somewhere else," says Crebs. "My job is to make 82nd Avenue highly undesirable as a place to prostitute... the citizens need some relief."
Tenty, on the other hand, believes that while arresting prostitutes improves the neighborhood in the short term, putting prostitutes through the criminal justice system with no attached counseling or services really only makes things worse.
"I don't think arresting people is helping. It gives them a criminal record and makes it harder for them to get a job," says Tenty, who says she has met several women forced to turn more tricks to pay off their fines to the city.
One thing everyone involved in this polarizing issue seems to agree on is that the long-term solution to Portland's prostitution problem involves creating social service programs (like housing and counseling) to help women who want to get off the street.
On September 23, the city requested proposals for a $250,000 grant to create treatment programs for prostitutes. That's half of the $500,000 Mayor Tom Potter promised to put toward curbing Portland prostitution at a press conference in early September. While Potter's staff says that much money is "still on the table," the lower funding offer disappointed some advocates.
"I'm really glad that the city is addressing this issue, but I don't think $250,000 is even remotely going to put a dent in prostitution," says Tenty, who is upset that the funding only provides treatment for arrested prostitutes. That means sex workers may have to get arrested in order to get help. "Everyone was kind of hoping it was going to be a much larger and broader response," agrees Pond.
Commander Crebs says what's needed is some patience. "I just can't snap my fingers and have a treatment program up and running by Friday," he says. "It's going to take millions of dollars and several years to solve this problem."