In some parts of town, spring and warmer weather means melting snow and thoughts of gardening, and in some parts of town it also means more street prostitutes.
This year, the city has electronic billboards warning johns if they get arrested their name and photo will appear on line for all to see. The billboards are running only occasionally, apparently when Clear Channel Communications donates unsold space. The on line listing is also fairly hit-or-miss. On March 25, it showed only one photo of a man convicted of prostitution within the past 12 months, and a few dozen men charged with prostitution during August-October 2008 and March 2009.
The city also changed prosecution policy. First-time offenders no longer will be able to keep charges off their record by going through Restorative Justice, a community-based diversion program.
These are the latest initiatives to address a very chronic problem.
Prostitution issues recently generated a spate of comments on the Powderhorn Neighbors Forum. Powderhorn is a neighborhood with more than its share of prostitution problems. The comments make it clear it is not a victimless crime.
Haddayr Copley-Woods wrote that men proposition her nearly every time she walks down East 31st Street.
Amy Brockman wrote that she gets harassed when walking to the Post Office at 3045 Bloomington Ave. S., even when she has her kids with her. “Multiple times I have walked neighborhood children home or had them come to my house after school because it is really not safe for them to walk … from the bus to their house alone,” she wrote. “A 12-year-old girl from my block who looks much older than her age has been solicited many times along 31st.”
It’s a year-round problem. Paul Chamberlain of Powderhorn offers one example. (Full disclosure, Paul is a friend.) He was leaving Hi-Lake Liquor, 2218 East Lake St., on a cold night this past winter when a woman approached asking for a ride home. She was freezing and wearing loafers. The taxi was late, she said.
The woman appeared about 50 years old and Chamberlain wanted to be helpful and obliged. For his efforts, he got propositioned in the car. When he declined, the woman reached over and grabbed his crotch. “She says, ‘Oh come on, wouldn’t you like to fool around?’” he recalled.
Chamberlain extricated himself from the situation. “I felt like an idiot,” he said. “It was pretty sad. She was probably younger than she looked.”
Such incidents have ripple effects. They risk making neighborhoods less neighborly. They make people more suspicious and less likely to reach out and help a stranger in need.
An old problem
Linda Kolkind of Powderhorn Park and former chair of the Southside Prostitution Task Force applauds the city’s new billboards.
“I think any time it provokes dialogue we are heading in the right direction,” Kolkind said. “One of the reasons prostitution has thrived and continues to thrive is that it is our dirty little secret. As long as we don’t talk about it and keep it hush-hush, it gets to flourish.”
Kolkind and Judy Oman of Corcoran neighborhood had worked on deterring johns for years. For much of the 1990s, Kolkind had a van and she and Oman would drive to prostitution hot spots. The van was decorated with slogans such as: “Prostitution: World’s oldest oppression”, “We See You,” and Kolkind’s favorite, “Pimps are Wimps” (The van got scrapped sometime in the early 2000s.)
Corcoran, (southwest of Lake and Hiawatha) ramped up its anti-soliciting efforts a few years ago, said Amy Arcand, Corcoran Neighborhood executive director. It started after a violent incident involving a resident and an apparent pimp. The resident tried to get a prostitute to stop soliciting outside his house. The man and the prostitute got into an argument and a second man approached and hit the resident, knocking him unconscious.
It galvanized neighborhood action, spurring the “Johns Keep Out” yard sign campaign and neighborhood barbeques to try to open dialogue with prostitutes working the area, Arcand said.
Prostitution is migratory. For a while, it was Corcoran residents’ number one complaint, Arcand said. She hasn’t received as many complaints recently.
Lucy Gerold, Commander of the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd Precinct, said there hadn’t been any recent spike in prostitution. “It is just a consistent and pervasive problem,” she said. “No matter how much enforcement and prosecution we do, we seem to see a never-ending stream of johns.”
According to city data, Minneapolis had 234 gross misdemeanor prostitution and soliciting prostitution cases in 2007 and 180 cases in 2008.
Shaming men arrested for soliciting prostitutes by posting their pictures on line will not significantly change their behavior. Research says once men are arrested for soliciting, their recidivism rate is quite low. However, Gerold said the threat of exposure on the web site could be a strong deterrent for those who haven’t been arrested yet, but are thinking about soliciting in Minneapolis.
A more coordinated effort?
There are some programs that try to help prostitutes change their lives. For instance, Volunteers of America runs the Women’s Recovery Center in North Oaks, a program that helps prostitutes overcome addiction and other problems. Bill Nelson, VOA’s director of correctional services, said it has served more than 650 women since it opened in 2000. (A 2006 report on the Center is here.)
Nelson applauds any efforts to address the prostitution problem, such as the billboards, but said he thought the city needed a more coordinated approach. It’s a complex problem, involving police, prosecutors, courts and the helping groups, such as VOA and PRIDE, he said.
He’d like to see a citywide or neighborhood meeting of all key players, and get people to agree on three key points: the nature of the problem, what needs to be done, and which groups will take which roles. Right now, “I don’t think there is any single, unified approach—none, zero—to address that problem,” he said.
Suzanne Koepplinger, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, has worked on stopping sex trafficking and was more upbeat about efforts to coordinate responses.
“There is a lot of activity going on right now that is very hopeful,” she said. “Two year ago, we were not seeing any of it. We were seeing some very isolated pockets of conversation and a fair amount of hand wringing but no real strategic effort to say we need to address this on a policy level.”
Koepplinger credited a statewide task force on human trafficking of getting a lot of key players talking to each other: prosecutors, social service providers, law enforcement and others.
She also credited local efforts, including efforts to change social norms around prostitution. “Having the billboard out there is a great way to get the message out to a large audience,” she said.
Scott Russell is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999.