Last week, the D.C. Council debated an amendment that would make prostitution-free zones permanent. While the bill is not projected to pass because of its potentially unconstitutional nature, residents in Ward 7 and neighboring Prince George’s County are losing patience.
As prostitution has moved from downtown into their back yards, many feel their neighborhood has become a dumping ground for a problem the rest of the city doesn’t want to deal with.
“This has been affecting our communities for 30 years, and there has been a major uptick in the last five,” said Andina Keith, a Prince George’s County resident and member of the neighborhood group Citizens Against Prostitution. “Whatever the right solution is, both . . . are going to have to coordinate.”
Keith said prostitutes are often picked up on Eastern Avenue in Ward 7, which bounds Fairmount Heights in Prince George’s. With the exception of a handful of small businesses, the area is largely residential. “The whole corridor has been neglected for decades,” she said. “It makes me sad. No community should have to endure that for so long.”
Over the years, the District has attempted to crack down on prostitution. A 1992 law enabled police to seize vehicles being used to solicit prostitutes in Logan Circle, an area that used to be associated with rampant prostitution. In 2006, prostitution-free zones were established, allowing police to make arrests if two or more people gather and refuse orders to disperse. Currently, zones can be designated for up to 20 days. Last week’s bill seeks to make the zones permanent.
Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who proposed the legislation in November, said it was “born out of concern expressed by neighborhood residents” who are angry at the disruption prostitution has caused in their communities.
“Illegal solicitations and acts occur in close proximity to the public recreation centers, schools, playground, parks, churches and private residences,” Alexander said.
Keith said her biggest concern is the children living near Eastern Avenue who are regularly exposed to prostitutes and their materials, including discarded condoms, undergarments and human waste. “Our children come home with stories about how they see them near their school, by their house,” she said. “They look to us as parents to do something.”
Others think making prostitution-free zones permanent is a misguided solution. Members of the advocacy organization Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive say lawmakers are focusing on the wrong issue.
“People think the problem is that the zones aren’t permanent,” said group President Cyndee Clay, “but the problem is that people are doing sex work in order to survive.”
Clay called Alexander’s proposal a “knee-jerk reaction” that incarcerates and profiles people instead of working to help them off the streets, something the group has strived to do since it was founded in 1993. Cuts to city funding over the past two years have resulted in the termination of several of group programs that teach job searching and healthy living.
According to Assistant D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham, the zones have not resulted in more arrests. At Tuesday’s hearing, Newsham stressed that police have never made an arrest using the prostitution-free zone law.
Sylvia Syphax, who owns an office building on Eastern Avenue, thinks the absence of arrests indicates that the prostitution-free zones are working, to an extent. In her experience, the zones work while they’re in place, but ultimately the prostitutes return.
“There are times when my street feels like Grand Central Station,” she said. “What does it say about us that we can’t get this under control?”
Jesse N. Holmes, 54, was first approached by two prostitutes while on an early morning walk shortly after he moved back to Ward 7 a few years ago. Since then, he said, he has found condom wrappers littered on his street and seen sex workers across the street from the Watts Branch Playground. He thinks his ward is being used as a “dumping ground” for illegal activity so other neighborhoods don’t have to deal with it.
“It makes me angry, but it also makes me feel motivated to stand up for this community,” he said. “This is my home, and it matters to me. If we can’t eradicate it, let’s at least share it. But it’s insulting. We’re at the end of our rope.”