Fighting prostitution: Effort hampered by lack of resources

There is a joke going around the Fair Haven neighborhood about the prostitutes in the cars that line up every night along the Quinnipiac River.

So many prostitutes and “johns” do business along the banks of the placid waterway, Ward 14 Alderwoman Erin Sturgis-Pascale said, that the prostitutes must be charging extra for the waterfront view.

Sturgis-Pascale can make light of the prevalence of sex trafficking in her ward, but she is also one of the loudest opponents of prostitution in her community and a strong supporter of New Haven Police Department Chief James Lewis’ new plan to eradicate prostitution in the city. In the past four weeks, undercover NHPD officers have arrested 17 prostitutes and 22 johns in four separate stings in the Fair Haven and Dwight neighborhoods. Prostitutes and johns — men who solicit sexual services — have “polluted” the streets of Ward 14 with “repulsive” practices and made it unsafe to walk in the neighborhood at night, she said.

Pollution, however, is not an easy problem to get rid of — especially when it has persisted for so long. Sturgis-Pascale and other city leaders want to see the city launch a broader attack on correlated problems such as drug abuse and domestic violence to help get women off the streets before they turn to prostitution. But with city and state money hard to come by, are these leaders just tilting at windmills?

ON THE STREET WHERE YOU LIVE

Prostitution in New Haven is not a new phenomenon.

The practice has been rampant in the city for decades, fueled by New Haven’s long-standing reputation as a hotspot for drug use and crime, Yale epidemiology professor Mark Kinzly said.

Because of New Haven’s location along Interstate 95 — a corridor between Boston and New York City — New Haven has been a high drug-traffic area since the 1950s, said Kinzly, who has been researching drug abuse in New Haven since 1990. With drug trafficking come female drug addicts, and as a result, prostitution has historically been pervasive in New Haven, he said. He said many of the women he has interviewed for his research have been involved somehow with prostitution.

A Yale Daily News Magazine article, “On the Street Where You Live,” published in 1979, said prostitutes could once be seen after 9 o’clock every night from the master’s gate of Pierson College. The square city block enclosed by Park, Chapel, Howe and Edgewood streets was once a thriving spot for sex trafficking, and Yale students living in Pierson would occasionally yell at the prostitutes out of their bedroom windows and throw bottles at them, according to the article.

Although prostitution has moved slightly farther afield from Yale’s campus in recent years, the industry has continued to thrive in the city.

Sturgis-Pascale said prostitution has been pervasive in her ward for years, and her constituents have complained for a long time about seeing women providing sexual services. Johns tend to know the places where they can find prostitutes late at night, she said. Men from surrounding neighborhoods and towns often enter Fair Haven in hopes of soliciting sexual services — one of the main reasons Lewis has chosen prostitution as a primary new target for the NHPD.

NHPD Capt. Peter Reichard said he frequently hears public outcry over prostitution.

“It’s always been a problem in certain neighborhoods in New Haven,” he said. “But it’s a crime that we can do something about.”

Fair Haven is not the only New Haven neighborhood struggling to combat prostitution. Kinzly said women looking to peddle sexual services frequent Dwight neighborhood, upper- and lower- Chapel Street and parts of Ferry Street. Male prostitutes tend to linger closer to Long Wharf, he said.

In the past, prostitutes were more common in downtown New Haven, Kinzly said, but as police have cracked down on crime close to the business district and the Yale campus, drugs and prostitutes have migrated to other parts of the city.

“Where the prostitutes are is dictated by where the drug economy is at the time,” he said.

Kinzly said New Haven prostitutes come from different age groups and represent many races. The existence of pimps or any other organized type of sex trafficking is almost nonexistent in New Haven, he said: “It’s not anything like the movies portray it.” Without a broader spectrum of rehabilitation services, some said, prostitution may remain a reality in New Haven for some time.

BUILT-IN MONEYMAKER

Social-services providers said two societal problems closely linked to prostitution — substance abuse and domestic violence — represent the two most underfunded “areas of treatment” in the city of New Haven.

Miguel Caldera, executive director of the Crossroads rehabilitation center, said his program and others have a hard time obtaining adequate government funding, whether local, state or federal, for the services they would like to provide to women coping with these problems.

“I don’t think there’s a program that can say that there’s enough resources coming from the city,” he said.

Crossroads, which has three branches in greater New Haven, provides health care, housing, psychiatric assistance and drug-addiction treatment for single men, single women and women with families.

At any given time, 20 to 50 percent of the women in Crossroads’ government-funded drug-rehabilitation center have become involved in prostitution somehow, Caldera said.

Yet the drug-rehabilitation resources available for women at Crossroads and other New Haven shelters still cannot keep pace with the number of women who need them, Kinzly said. In the 1970s and 1980s, as drug use was rising around the country, more men than women were struggling with substance abuse, and shelters responded by providing more resources for drug-addicted males, he said.

Now, equal numbers of men and women are heavily addicted to drugs, but rehabilitation centers have not yet increased the supply of drug-treatment resources to match the demand of drug-addicted women, Kinzly said. He estimated that the ratio of treatment resources between men and women is close to 70 to 30, and this is not good news for drug-addicted women at risk of prostitution, he said.

“Unfortunately, women have a built-in moneymaker when it comes to drugs,” Kinzly said. “Their means of getting what they need to survive is sex.”

TAKING RESPONSIBILITY

Solving the prostitution problem may demand long-term rehabilitation services, and such services cost money.

The resources to help every woman in the city who might require them will not exist unless programs such as the one run by Crossroads receive more funding from the city, state and federal government, Caldera said.

Ward 2 Alderwoman Gina Calder ‘05 EPH ‘08 said New Haven is particularly “hard-pressed” to adequately provide dedicated services, skilled staff and shelter to the women who need it.

“I’m just not sure that the city is well-equipped to provide those types of services,” Calder said. “Oftentimes, it’s necessary to partner up with state or federal governments, who have more resources and dollars to work with.”

Brian Garnett, spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Corrections, said although more money for drug-rehabilitation resources is necessary for New Haven and other Connecticut cities, the state already provides many treatment programs for women arrested and imprisoned for prostitution.

Because the percentage of offenders who return to prison after being released is very high, Garnett said, the DOC makes sure to provide halfway homes and substance-abuse treatment to the women convicted of prostitution, he said. Additionally, Garnett said, the DOC provides $35 million each year to community shelters such as Crossroads in order for them to further help drug-addicted women on the streets.

“We try to give the women the tools they need to succeed and to not turn back to their old lifestyles,” Garnett said.

Sturgis-Pascale said while she believes it falls upon the state government to provide the remaining funding for rehabilitation resources in New Haven, she also thinks prostitution persists in New Haven in part because of a lack of collaboration between New Haven and surrounding towns. Many people work in New Haven offices but “do not want to live around these problems,” she said.

Sturgis-Pascale said she would like to see neighboring municipalities collectively take responsibility for New Haven’s prostitution and crime problems and “pitch in” the resources to help provide social services to some of the most impoverished individuals in Connecticut.

In the town of Waterbury, 20 miles away from New Haven, police officers have executed three separate stings targeting johns this year, said Steve Gambini, the aide to the mayor in Waterbury. He said it is natural that prostitution exists more in cities than in suburbs but agrees that it is important for all the towns and cities in the state to work together in order to address the problem.

“We are carrying the burden for this entire region. We take care of everyone,” Sturgis-Pascale said. “We need to spread the responsibility around. It’s a much bigger picture.”

AN ENDLESS CYCLE

Community leaders said they are looking forward to the day when they will no longer see rows of parked cars along the Quinnipiac River.

Undercover police officers will continue to target prostitutes and johns in New Haven for an indefinite period of time, City Hall Spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said. The city will persist in executing anti-prostitution stings as long as they are having an impact on the safety of New Haven streets, she said.

But Kinzly and State Rep. Mike Lawlor, the chair of the State Judiciary Committee, wonder whether it is ultimately effective to target prostitutes in these stings. Lawlor said he suspects most of the prostitutes will be punished with a short jail sentence, but once they are released, they will return to the business of selling sex.

Reichard said he understands that some of the arrested women may eventually return to street prostitution, but he said that is no reason not to try to deter them from the practice. After all, he said, both the solicitation and the sale of sexual acts is illegal in Connecticut.

Kinzly estimated that 50 to 60 percent of women arrested for prostitution eventually return to using drugs and selling their bodies for drug money. Following their arrests, these women have a criminal record and subsequently have less access to social services such as public housing, Kinzly said. The life of a prostitute, he said, is an endless cycle.

“The police will do these stings for a while, trust me,” Kinzly said. “The women will stop selling themselves on the street, and the prostitution will slow down for a little bit, and then in two or three years, it will pick up again. This is what always happens. It’s nothing new.”

Comments