Large turnout at 82nd Ave. anti-prostitution summit captures city leaders’ attention

Discover what hundreds of neighbors learned when
they turned out for this “Town Hall” …

Panelists at the anti-prostitution Town Hall Summit include Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard; Jeri Williams, Neighborhood Coordinator, Office of Neighborhood Involvement, and a survivor of prostitution on 82nd Avenue; Bill Smith, Executive Director of Defenders USA, a group formed to help end demand for prostitution; Multnomah County Sheriff’s Deputy Keith Bickford, Office Human Trafficking Coordinator; James Pond of Transitions Global; Lila Lee, Executive Director of Council for Prostitution Alternatives; Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Commander Michael Crebs; and Ken Turner, president of 82nd Avenue of Roses Business Association.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The panelists said they were impressed by the size of the audience, and the level of interest these neighbors demonstrated, in combating street-sex for sale at a Town Hall Summit held at Vestal Elementary School on September 15.

A question that remains is whether or not the city’s leaders will impress the neighbors by taking action to back up their rhetoric.

Street prostitution runs rampant
The Portland City Council chose allow the Prostitution-free Zone (PFZ) ordinance to expire on September 30, 2007.

Because of this decision, many residents and business owners along 82nd Avenue of Roses and NE Sandy Boulevard contend – and some law enforcement officials agree – that street-level prostitution along “the strip” has gone from furtive to “in-your-face blatant”.

Mayor Potter pledges prostitution prosecution
After no less than three neighborhood groups have formed – joined by two business associations – to protest the increased crime which they say street prostitution has brought into their neighborhoods, and a reduced level of livability – Portland Mayor Tom Potter revealed a plan to combat street-sex for sale.

(Read all about it in this exclusive East PDX News article: CLICK HERE)

Setting the scene
Even though Vestal’s auditorium was hot and very poorly ventilated, about 275 people listened to eight panelists and then responded, during the 2½ meeting on the 15th.

“Thank you for coming out,” began Justin Cutler, Vice Chair of the Montavilla Neighborhood Association, as he set the tone for the meeting.

“And, thank you to those of you who brought awareness to this issue,” said Cutler. “On behalf of the neighbors in Montavilla, and all the neighbors from neighborhoods along 82nd Avenue, we hope to be respectful this evening, as we develop solutions that make 82nd Avenue a better place for everyone.”

Event organizer Dawn Rasmussen introduced the summit’s facilitator, Judith Mowry, and asked the panelists to introduce themselves.

In the audience, we spotted Portland Police Bureau Chief Rosie Sizer, Carmen Rubio from Mayor Tom Potter’s office, and Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish, while Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk stood in the back – and there were many police officers in attendance also.

Organizer Dawn Rasmussen thanks community members and government officials for coming to the Town Hall Summit.

Town Hall Summit to elicit questions and educate
“We’re all here because we’re concerned about our livability,” organizer Rasmussen stated. We’re not here to weigh one particular approach to combating prostitution over another. What we are doing is assessing ideas to combat the problem.”

“Street prostitution isn’t a problem until it moves into your neighborhood,” Rasmussen added. “But, it hits home when it happens in your front yard or down the block.

“Prostitution is a very complex problem, and has multiple layers,” continued Rasmussen. “It has been called the oldest profession, as we’ve heard before. The purpose of this meeting tonight is to get ideas out there, and educate ourselves.”

Former 82nd Avenue prostitute – now neighborhood advocate – Jeri Williams prepares to tell her story.

Recovered prostitute tells her story
The room grew silent as Jeri Williams, now a neighborhood coordinator at the City of Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement, told compellingly about being a survivor of prostitution on 82nd Avenue.

“People think prostitutes are women who enjoy being intimate with total strangers,” Williams began. “That’s not the way it works.”

Williams said prostitutes will tell people they are in control of their lives. “Some may be, but that wasn’t my situation. I had two babies at the time, one was two years old one was one year old. They were being watched over by a crack addict, the sister of my pimp. I had to bring back $300 a night, or not come back until dawn.

“When I got out [of prostitution], it was because I was stabbed and left for dead in 1989 by a drug addict who tried to rob me. I would not let him rob me, because I did want to get home and get beaten up by my pimp for not brining back money. He stabbed me in my back and arm; I carry the scars with me today. But I’m alive!”

Because she was able to get into rehabilitation programs, get therapy, and develop a “spiritual life”, Williams said she learned life skills that helped her get along in the world outside of street prostitution. She credited the Council of Prostitution Alternatives – a funded program at the time – for giving women the opportunity to change themselves.

“I became a community activist,” revealed Williams. “I’ve worked on issues such as transportation; I’ve beat up on corporate polluters; I’ve been a workers’ rights and domestic violence advocate.  I’ve been able to do all these incredible, wonderful things.”

Williams then announced what we’d discovered while reporting this story in September, 2007: “I’ve been on the Web not been able to find any programs to help women escape from prostitution.”

Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard says he wants a program that “fixes the problem” instead of exporting prostitution to another part of Portland.

Commissioner Leonard speaks about the PFZ
Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard congratulated Williams on her accomplishments before saying why he voted to allow the PFZ ordinance to “sunset”.

“I joined the Council when we overturned the Prostitution-free Zone ordinance last year,” Leonard stated. “Prostitution-free Zones and Drug free Zones don’t work.”

When asked by police officers why he would vote to remove “such a valuable law enforcement tool”, Leonard added, he asked officers to think of a way of fixing the problem, instead of moving it to another area of town.

Leonard points to success of Downtown program
Leonard said systematically arresting and prosecuting repeat offenders – and encouraging city agencies to shut down businesses that harbor criminal activity – gets to the root of the problem.

“The downtown crime rate has dropped 30 percent. Recidivism has dropped 71 per cent. I’ve asked for this approach to be brought out on 82nd Avenue,” Leonard declared. Due to increased police patrols, he added, “I’ve been on three ride-alongs [observation sessions] with police officers in the last three weeks. We didn’t see one prostitute on the street.”

Executive director of Defenders USA, Bill Smith, says it’s time for real men to figuratively stand up and shout at johns, “Don’t buy our girls!”

Crusader decries recruiting children into the sex trade
Next to speak was the executive director of Defenders USA, Bill Smith. Turning to Williams, he said, “On behalf of honest men, I apologized for what pimps and customers have done to you. ‘Shared Hope International’ and our group demand this activity be stopped.”

Saying his group defends women and children from sexual exploitation, Smith asserted, “If there wasn’t a buyer and there wasn’t a seller, there wouldn’t be victims.”

Citing fellow panelist James Pond, Smith said the average starting age of a prostituted person has gone down to between 12 and 14 years of age. “You wouldn’t let someone take a youngster from a shopping center and turn them into a prostitute. Why do we allow this to happen on our streets and in our schools? It’s time men stand up and say, ‘Don’t buy our girls!'”

Sheriff’s office targets juveniles
“Our Juvenile Justice System hasn’t done a very good job,” admitted Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office Human Trafficking Coordinator, Deputy Keith Bickford.

Saying prostitution is so widespread and pervasive, Bickford told the attendees the sheriff is focusing attention on children. “We’ve found the [prostitution] recruiting has been going on in our schools! We need better services, and educational efforts.”

Transitions Global founder, James Pond, says he’s concerned because eighty percent of prostitution takes place “off the street”.

Looks beyond street sex-for-sale
James Pond, who started fighting sexual exploitation in Cambodia, and is now taking his work worldwide, announced his organization’s new name: Transitions Global.

“We help build new lives for survivors of sex trafficking,” explained Pond. “We’re looking at this issue in terms of a holistic approach. 80 percent of prostitution is taking place off street.”

Their concern, Pond added is that prostitution along 82nd Avenue is “only a symptom of the greater needs of women and children who are being exploited.”

Seeks funding for prostitution treatment
Lila Lee, executive director of the Council for Prostitution Alternatives (CPA), stated that she’s working to provide prostitution treatment options in Portland.

“Takes a village to make a prostitute; and it takes a village to get a woman out of prostitution,” Lee paraphrased. “We are trying to get funding to restart the CPA program that helped Jeri get out [of prostitution].”

Lee claimed they are already working with 51 clients, with the help of organizations like Volunteers of America and Providence St. Vincent Hospital – which provide clothing, healthcare, and hygiene services.

“Very few of these women were not sexually or physically abused as children,” asserted Lee, “I had a friend whose mom who sold her to a heroin dealer when she was in second grade. My clients are suffering from addictions. 90 percent are homeless; 90 percent have ‘post-traumatic syndrome’.”

Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Commander Michael Crebs is in charge of implementing the law enforcement side of the City’s new anti-prostitution program.

Police commander explains new program
Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Commander Michael Crebs began by saying, “With all of this community support, I feel encouraged that we – in a joint effort of North, Northeast, and East Precinct – can clean up 82nd Avenue.”

Currently, Crebs explained, an individual charged with prostitution typically is sent to Community Court, gets a short jail stay, and is turned loose – with no probation – and allowed to “go about their business” after being released.

“Under our plan, the individual has the option to go to Community Court for the first offence,” Crebs elucidated. “The second time, they go to regular court. If they are found guilty or admit guilt, they will be put into a probation system.

“About 15 officers will be assigned as probation officers. They’ll actively look for people [who are breaking the terms of their probation by associating with johns, pimps or soliciting]. They’ll be rearrested, and put them in jail for minimum for 3 days – instead of being out and back on the street in about five hours, as with the current system.”

The President of the 82nd Avenue of Roses Business Association, Ken Turner, talks about the negative impacts on commerce and future development.

Prostitution hinders commerce
Ken Turner, President of 82nd Avenue of Roses Business Association, told the audience, “I’d like to say that I’m glad to be here. I’d like to – but this problem is very real; so I am glad to be here to share information with the community.”

From a business standpoint, Turner said prostitution is hurting the business community – both currently and in the future, as the City considers building a professional baseball stadium not far from 82nd Avenue in Lents.

“When I was out with members of our business association, visiting businesses along the avenue and sharing anti-crime information with them, business owners and managers agreed there was a real problem,” Turner recounted. “One even joked darkly, ‘Without all of the prostitutes and pimps, what would we do for customers these days?'”

Turner said he felt empathy for the prostituted women, “but I don’t don’t feel a bit sorry for the pimps and johns. They are hurting our community.”

We estimate about 275 people put up with the hot and stuffy auditorium to participate in the Town Hall Summit.

Question-and-answer session follows
During the remainder of the summit meeting, attendees wrote questions and comments on cards, sorted by the facilitators, and then put to the panel.

The questions illustrated varying levels of understanding about prostitution among the audience members.

Some asked about root causes – “why do married men go to prostitutes?” Others asked for more details about the program proposed to deal with the situation. A neighbor asked what they should do if an act of prostitution was taking place in front of their home. Another decried the lack of social services for prostituted persons.

Space prohibits us from recounting the dozens of questions, answers, and comments made during the 90-minute “forum” portion of the meeting. We suggest you attend the next Town Hall Summit planned for next month to hear more for yourself.

Organizer pleased with the meeting
After the meeting, Rasmussen told us she thought the Town Hall Summit went very well. “It was positive opportunity to get everyone ‘on the same page’. People educated themselves.”

In all, it was a “galvanizing event”, Rasmussen reflected. “The most important thing I took away from the event is seeing how much our neighbors care about their neighborhood, and their great capacity to care about others as human beings.

“At the base of the Burnside Bridge is a quote from Mayor Bud Clark,” she paraphrased, ‘The citizens and businesses are the fabric of our community’.”

Standing in the back of the Vestal Elementary School auditorium, Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk takes in the proceedings. He’s one of the officials we’ll be asking for comment on this new program.

Coming up next …
We’ll be talking with City and County leaders in an effort to determine their dedication to the effort to reduce street prostitution along 82nd Avenue of Roses, and we’ll report back to you.

Next Town Hall Summit is scheduled on October 7 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Portland Community College Southeast Center, on SE 82nd Avenue of Roses at SE Division Street.

Watford Reed contributed to this story.

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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