THE KEY to cleaning up prostitution in Portland isn't making more arrests or slapping streetwalkers with steeper fines.
Instead, reducing prostitution in the Rose City will rely on finding safe, affordable housing for prostitutes—so says the draft of a report the city's Prostitution Advisory Council spent a year researching and will present to Portland City Council next week.
The 21-person Prostitution Advisory Council, a group of police, citizens, and sex worker counselors, came together last year at a time when many Portland residents were demanding the city take swift enforcement action against prostitution along 82nd Avenue ["Red Light," News, Sept 18, 2008]. A citizen petition gathered 1,500 signatures to reinstate the 82nd Avenue Prostitution-Free Zone (PFZ)—a controversial policy that the city let expire in 2007 after complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union.
In addition to the petition, last fall neighbors were impatient for the city to take a more aggressive enforcement approach. One neighborhood activist, Liz Sullivan, even hijacked a press conference from then Mayor Tom Potter, stepping up to his podium to demand the reinstatement of the PFZs ["Neighbors Slam Potter's Prostitution Plan," Blogtown, Sept 11, 2008]. Instead, Potter convened the advisory council.
Since last fall, citizen reports of prostitution have dropped 43 percent in the Montavilla neighborhood that stretches along 82nd Avenue, according to the report. But an FBI sting in February picked up seven underage girls in Portland in just four hours, ranking our fair city second in the nation for underage prostitution after Seattle ["Confessions of a Teenage Prostitute," News, Sept 3]. Still, it seems neighbors on the advisory council have been won over to a more compassionate approach.
"I really wanted to go after the pimps and johns," says Brian Wong, a Montavilla resident who led neighborhood anti-crime patrols and signed on to co-chair the Prostitution Advisory Council. Wong's view of how Portland should conquer sex crime changed during the year of meeting with former prostitutes and police.
"When you start to talk to these women, you realize pimps are essentially domestic batterers," says Wong. "A jail is nothing but a temporary house for a woman in prostitution. You can't get these women off the street if they have nowhere to go."
The report says meeting the housing needs of prostitutes is "imperative" to curbing sex crimes in the city: "Housing is a basic need, and for prostituted persons, it is controlled by their pimp, boyfriend, manager, partners, or 'guardian' figures charging rent," reads the document.
Studies the advisory council examined show 90 percent of female prostitutes have been homeless, especially juveniles. The US Department of Justice finds the average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is just 13.
The report also recommends establishing a "john school" to reform people charged with paying for sex, and renewing funding for LifeWorks Northwest's New Options for Women program—which counsels women arrested for prostitution. With 2008's one-year $250,000 grant from the city, LifeWorks counseled 64 female prostitutes. But only eight have been assisted into housing, according to the report.
If a woman on the street wants to get into Portland's rent-assisted public housing, first she will have to wait for the waitlist to even open—a roughly once-a-year event. After that, she would have to wait between one and three years to get to the top of the waitlist, according to the Housing Authority of Portland. Meanwhile, the city has spent $4.98 million on treatment and housing for the city's worst crack addicts over the last two years ["The Secrets Behind the Secret List," News, Nov 5].
Nevertheless, funding safe housing for prostitutes could be cheaper than the current reality: paying for their jail cells. The per-day, per-inmate cost of jailing someone in Multnomah County is $70, and jail lands 92 percent of prostitutes back in illegal activity after their release, according to the report. The council estimates that $10-15 per person per day would cover the cost of transitional housing.
"I welcome any recommendations by this group, and if their conclusion is that a housing-first model would be more beneficial to people in the sex industry than jail then I'm inclined to agree with them," says Housing Commissioner Nick Fish. "But the challenge we're facing as a council is that we're doing triage for 8,000 people in need of stable housing.
"The challenge is [that] today it may be prostitutes, tomorrow it may be 150 people turned away from the women's shelter run by the Salvation Army," Fish continues. "We could probably come up with 8,000 compelling stories on this issue—and each of them are important to me."