City Council today took up the year-in-the-making recommendations from Portland's citizen/police Prostitution Advisory Council, whose "Houses not Handcuffs" report I wrote about last week.

Though complaints of prostitution along 82nd Ave have decreased 43 percent over the past year, the City Council is now faced with whether the small successes of the past year are a good model for future funding. East Precinct Commander Mike Crebs told the council that a year ago this time, officers would routinely find 3-15 prostitutes walking the streets a night, "Now you’re lucky to find one. Where have all the flowers gone?"

But the testimony from social workers and neighbors this morning was overshadowed by the personal story told of Denise, a former prostitute who got off the street this year thanks to a Lifeworks Northwest program run with a $250,000 one-time city grant.

Denise started her testimony by saying she had turned tricks along 82nd Avenue for six years. Rather than go to jail for her misdemeanor prostitution charges, Denise enrolled in Lifework's mentor program and has been in residential treatment for eight months.

Denise, a prostitute for six years, enrolled in a city-funded treatment program eight months ago.
  • Denise, a prostitute for six years, enrolled in a city-funded treatment program eight months ago.

I was present on the street during the Prostitution Free Zone [PFZ] and also during the time when no consequences were given. Then an officer told me there would be a program to help me with whatever issues were keeping me on the street. Constant police pressure made it impossible to work... I had an opportunity at Lifeworks to look at the core issues that led me to my path... Lifeworks came in to treat me and hasn’t let me go. I speak on behalf of my sisters on the streets, it took a long time to make this change.

Denise also thanked the police officers "who believed in me before I believed in myself." One of the big hurdles prostitutes identify for getting off the street is finding stable housing. Getting into public housing in Portland means starting at the bottom of a wait list that can be three years long.

County Commissioner Diane Mckeel says there are plans to work next year to create 10-15 bed program for women in prostitution. She’s also working on the creation of public service announcements to be aired in the Metro region. “It’s inspiring to see people transform their passion for their neighborhood into action,” said McKeel.

The commissioners agreed that a more root-problem approach to prostitution that provides housing, therapy and addiction treatment is far better than the old policy that focused on arrests and excluding prostituted women from certain areas. “As we heard from Denise today,” Leonard said, “the PFZs did not work. I hope that in this moment of kumbaya that we can remember the success of this approach as the issue comes up in other neighborhoods.”

Commissioner Fish said securing more money for Lifeworks and housing programs is going to take strong political and public support. “It’s not that we aren’t aggressively trying to meet the need,” said City Commissioner Nick Fish. “The problem is that the need keeps growing. What the Salvation Army told me is that 100% of people who come and knock on their door have had some history of sexual assault.”

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz agreed with one recommendation of the report: allowing women to access treatment without having to get arrested first. “If there is a flaw with the Service Coordination Team or with this project it’s that people who are already in the law enforcement system get priority for the treatment,” said Fritz.