BY 6 PM on Monday night, September 15, the Vestal Elementary auditorium on NE 82nd Avenue was heating up. Three hundred people packed the wooden school seats to talk about the topic that's making neighbors and city hall sweat: the rampant prostitution along 82nd Avenue.
Reports of streetwalkers along 82nd have quadrupled in recent weeks, with police making 36 arrests along the street in the last month and neighbors complaining of condoms on their Little League fields and syringes on their sidewalks. Now that the politicians have taken notice—two city council members were at the Monday night town hall—the community has to agree on the best solution, which is turning into a heated debate.
In the front of the auditorium was a giant notepad with clear directions written in black pen: "Quiet, Respectful Listening." Dawn Rasmussen, the coordinator of the Save NE 82nd Avenue group and organizer of the town hall, was working hard to keep the audience quiet, respectful, and listening. One tactic was to table all questions related to the controversial Prostitution-Free Zone (PFZ)—a questionably legal law enforcement policy that Portland police used along 82nd until it expired last year. Some neighbors blame the recent uptick in streetwalking on the death of the PFZ.
"Before we get philosophical, we need to immediately stem the crime. We're at critical red alert on our streets," says Liz Sullivan, a member of neighborhood coalition Montavilla in Action, who stood outside the town hall gathering signatures for a petition demanding the city reinstate the PFZ.
Last week, Sullivan and another Montavilla in Action member took over a press conference at which Mayor Tom Potter announced an outline of his plan to combat prostitution on 82nd. Potter does not support reinstating the PFZ and Sullivan regaled the crowd with horror stories of coming across prostitutes and johns having sex while taking a Sunday morning stroll through a neighborhood park. Potter's idea is to put prostitutes and johns on probation after their second arrest and promises $500,000 in city funds for treatment options. Anything short of reinstating the PFZ is not enough enforcement, argues Montavilla in Action.
That's the last thing the Oregon American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) thinks should happen. It battled the Prostitution-Free Zone until it expired last year and according to Oregon ACLU Executive Director David Fidanque, the zone was essentially an "end run around the criminal justice process." Since prostitutes and johns were punished in civil court, they had no right to a lawyer and often wound up without one.
"What I see in the mayor's statement is he says we're going to use the criminal justice system, rather than having police officers being prosecutor, judge, and jury, which is how it functioned all too often under the old system," says Fidanque.
Another neighborhood group, 82nd Avenue Cares, competed for space with Montavilla in Action handing out flyers at the town hall. Their ideas for bettering the dire prostitution situation are the direct opposite of reinstating the PFZ: less crackdowns on prostitutes, more funding for the social services sex workers desperately need.
"This is not a law enforcement issue, it's an issue of econ and social justice," says Crystal Tenty, sex industry outreach coordinator for the Portland Women's Crisis Line and member of 82nd Avenue Cares. While Tenty is one of the few people who has actually asked the people at the center of the debate (the prostitutes) about what they need, she's says no one from city hall has taken the time to do the same.
"The entire discussion about what should be done is dominated by neighborhood associations and police and politicians," laments Tenty. "Any sort of program that's going to work is going to need to have input from sex workers."
Tenty thinks Potter's promised $500,000 would be well invested in long-term services that help women transition off the street. Since the current wait-list for a women's shelter is an abysmal six months, that means funding housing for sex workers. Establishing a childcare facility and drop-in center where women can shower and do laundry would also be proactive steps.
"A large majority of [sex workers] are out there simply doing it for the money and there aren't a lot of alternatives for them to make a livable wage," says Tenty.
From the stage of the stuffy town hall, Jeri Williams echoed Tenty's frustration with Portland's void of social services for prostitutes. Now a neighborhood organizer, in the summer of 1989 Williams turned $20 tricks on 82nd every night and lived with an abusive pimp. The organizations that helped her escape and get therapy are now defunct.
"There's no well-funded, structured programs for prostitution," says Williams. "We have to make the investments necessary to make the change in our communities."