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Not In My Backyard

Impact of sex trade on Charles St. residents

While transgender prostitutes risk harm to themselves, residents of the areas where they ply their trade say they also harm them. For a decade, homeowners in lower Charles Village have complained about hookers loudly flagging down johns, trespassing, and generally disrupting life on the streets and alleys just north of North Avenue.

“Whores are having a field day,” was the subject line of an Aug. 21 e-mail City Paper (and a long list of others) received. It described a parade of women strutting up St. Paul Street at 4 A.M., “screaming at the top of their lungs,” while another draped herself over the hood of a taxicab as it slowly drove around the corner.

One neighborhood resident who bought his house over a decade ago says the prostitution problem—mainly involving transgender women—ramped up as Mount Vernon pushed the activity north from that neighborhood. The resident, who asked his name not be used for fear of retaliation from the drug dealers he says accompany the prostitutes, calls police regularly and monitors the street activity. Neighborhood walks late at night and, for a while, a blue light, deterred some of the activity, he says, but the prostitutes and pimps fought back.

“One night—it had to be retaliatory—several SUVs circled the block with the bass pumping,” the resident says. “It woke up the whole block.” He says this was right after a television report on the problem.

The resident says he heard talk about enforcement to push the activity west to Howard Street, which is a commercial area. But word came back that the prostitutes feel safer in the residential neighborhood because residents will call police for screaming or gunshots. “It’s ironic,” he says, “because we call when they are screaming to attract johns.”

The resident says he is aware of the problems the transgender prostitutes face, and he is sympathetic. But he rejects the notion that police or residents are picking on transgender prostitutes because they are transgender. “No,” the resident says, “it’s because you do crimes. Prostitution is illegal, and they bring other crime in.”

The activity is clearly organized, the resident says, with carpools, teen lookouts, and a remote person who apparently monitors police radio bands and warns of approaching cops. “We call police and you see the lookouts’ cell phones light up,” the resident says.

Residents have seen more than a dozen prostitutes out on a block at once.

Beyond the dangers created by drug trafficking, residents say they are disgusted to discover used condoms (or actual prostitutes) draped over their cars or human excrement on their driveways. “It was a person, I assume, since very few dogs use napkins as toilet paper, which was left in my flower bed,” one resident wrote in an e-mail.

The activity, centered in the lower 2000 blocks of Calvert, St. Paul, and Charles streets, holds back a neighborhood that seems primed to gentrify. One resident e-mailed later to admonish a reporter to mention the good things going on, including the rehabbing of vacant buildings and creation of two community gardens.

“It is hurting the people who are invested in the community,” says City Councilman Carl Stokes, whose 12th District includes the problem area. “People are threatening to sell if they can—and they don’t want to talk about it because they want to sell.”

Earlier this summer, Northern District police started working with vice-squad members to conduct stings (undercover police acting as johns) and reverse stings (where police dress like prostitutes to attract and arrest johns), as well as monitoring and outreach with foot patrols. “They have gotten arrests frequently in the past four or five weeks,” Stokes says. “It’s better than it was three months ago.”

Still: “I think we’re not doing enough,” Stokes says. “You have to be there for 12 hours a day, moving people and arresting people.”

Jacqueline Robarge, founder and director of Power Inside, a community nonprofit that has worked to empower incarcerated women, worries that arrests will not help. “Our current strategies are not working,” she says. “We need to focus resources on public health solutions that are culturally competent and compassionate.”

Robarge says the “field day” e-mail, which she received, is the wrong approach. “We want to recognize the humanity of these people,” she says. “You saw that e-mail. Did any one of us press reply and say, ‘I think this is inappropriate?’ How can we acknowledge that these people are vulnerable without typecasting them to say this is all they are and this is all they ever will be?”

Lower Charles Village is just one area where Robarge says she has encountered this kind of activity and neighborhood rage against it. “I care about the people in the neighborhood who are trying to have a workaday life,” Robarge says. “I also care about the people who find themselves in horrific situations . . . I know that transgender women don’t inherently prostitute but when they do, they’re particularly vulnerable to violence.”

Rapes and other assaults are common, Robarge says, and the victims feel they can’t call police because they will be arrested—or worse—by the cops. Even when transgender people receive social services, there is discrimination, Robarge says, in classrooms and employment programs. “Someone makes a sexist, violent comment—you’re not going to feel welcome there,” she says.

“Because we can’t have a strong outreach presence down there . . . we’re talking to every public officials we possibly can to try to create pathways for people to get off the street whenever they’re ready,” Robarge says. “There are strategies we haven’t tried. So long as there is poverty and racism, we’re going to have this problem.”

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