Seeking Alternatives to Streets

At a D.C. Council hearing Friday, community leaders, prostitution support groups and law enforcement officials talked about the District's prostitution problem. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post
By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 8, 2008

Sharmus Outlaw has worked the streets of the District for years and has been arrested for prostitution, but the 43-year-old transgender woman told members of the D.C. Council yesterday that incarceration is not the way to deal with the illegal enterprise.

"Sex work is about survival," Outlaw said. "It's not about choosing a neighborhood to go into and to prostitute. We are struggling as transgender women to make ends meet and to survive in today's world where we are misunderstood."

But residents of a Northeast neighborhood not far from Union Station told a different story. Jeff King said that when he opens his door in the morning, he often finds condoms on the sidewalk. Joseph McHale said, "The last thing I hear when I go to bed at night is the clicking of their heels."

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who chaired the hearing of the Committee on Public Safety, said: "I agree with those who keep in mind that there are human beings involved in this. It is not just about punishing somebody."

But Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said "street prostitution is nonnegotiable. There is no level of street prostitution that will be okay."

Cyndee Clay, executive director of Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, said prostitutes need more support programs to help them leave the streets.

"I see more people involved in sex work who live in the city who are pushed out in the streets because of circumstance," she said. "What we are seeing is that prostitution is being pushed from the downtown area into neighborhood areas."

Community activist Robert Pittman called for stronger penalties for prostitutes and their johns.

Patricia Riley, special counsel for the U.S. attorney's office, said the problem is not the range of programs and penalties; it is lack of funding from the city.

"One of the things that has concerned us over the years is that money has not been available for these division programs," Riley said. About 8 percent of those arrested for prostitution in the District this years were repeat offenders, she said. That number is down from 10 percent last year.

Police Inspector Brian Bray gave an example of a program that he says is working: "John School," where those arrested for soliciting prostitutes are required to take a class on changing their behavior. Of the 3,500 people who have participated, Bray said, only four have been rearrested.

He also said the number of venues where open-air prostitution takes place has decreased by an "astounding" 42 percent this year.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company