Street Sweeping

Bloomberg Plan Sends Prostitutes Cycling From City Jails to Local Corners

You don't want to see Denise* on your block. Nobody does. She's a homeless crack addict. And a hooker. Her erratic gait looks something like the concentrated strut of a runway model, but with end-stage Parkinson's. On the street, it's known as the "crack dance." Denise arches her spine way back, which accentuates the pipe sticking out of her bra. She's jerking around, shifting from one hip to the other, her eyes lolling back while she tries to ask you for a quarter to make a phone call. She looks like she might pass out at any moment. She's way too out of it, even, to take a sandwich from Nightworks, a nearly three-year-old outreach initiative of FROST'D (From Our Streets With Dignity), which has been providing health care, condoms, and clean needles to street prostitutes since 1986.

What Denise does want to do, however, is talk—about the police. "So many times they come up to us," she says, waving her hand, a gesture that throws her off balance. "And then we get arrested. And I think that's so, so, so . . . " She trails off, stumbling in a wide ellipse. Her shoe comes loose, and she leans on Nightworks' van—also the group's exam room—for leverage as she works to get it back on. Daniel Nalepka, a physician's assistant and director of the program, offers some help by steadying Denise's shoe with his own. It's painful to watch, but after a long minute she does it. "Well . . . thanks for listening," she sputters. "I've got more than drugs on the brain, you know."

Stacey, a new outreach worker, nods as Denise weaves back down the sidewalk. "She's up, and she's been up for a long, long time," says Stacey. "You actually don't stop to sleep when you're like that. You just pass out." Stacey, who doesn't want to give her last name, was homeless, using crack and turning tricks in Hunts Point from 1994 to 1999. "A lot of cops were dating us up there. A lot," she says, of the Bronx scene. "Some were nice—they'd come by and tell us, 'Hey, there's gonna be a sweep tonight. Get everyone off the street.' And sometimes the same ones who were your dates would come back and arrest you."

illustration: Kana Philip

Stacey was finally talked into a drug treatment program by a female public defender, but according to a new report by the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, she's one of the few who break from the cycle of arrest-imprison-repeat, called the "revolving door" by advocates. That's also the title of the report, which makes a case for the futility of repeated arrest and incarceration, and documents the sexualized and often abusive police treatment of street prostitutes, the majority of whom are homeless and drug-dependent, the report found.

Though the study stops short of asking for legalization, "Revolving Door" clearly seeks to reform the criminal-justice response to prostitution. "The people who are on the street are really at the edges of society," says Juhu Thukral, director of the Sex Workers Project and a co-author of the study. "They need housing, they need substance abuse treatment, they need help with case management, they need counseling, and they need it in an intensive and coordinated way."

What they don't need, according to advocates, is Operation Spotlight and Operation Clean Sweep, Bloomberg initiatives begun in January and July 2002, respectively, to carry forward the Giuliani torch of "zero tolerance" for repeat misdemeanants. Spotlight puts pressure on cops to make more arrests and on judges to give harsher sentences, and Clean Sweep encourages ticketing for "quality of life" violations. According to the report, the initiatives work in tandem to "sweep up" prostitutes. If the cops don't catch an outright solicitation, they'll write up a summons for loitering or obstructing traffic to anyone they recognize as a prostitute, which will almost always lead to an arrest: The homeless and drug-addicted rarely pay tickets or show up for desk appearances, and thus rack up warrants. "From beginning to end," Bloomberg told The New York Times in May 2002, "from the police officer who arrests a persistent offender, to the prosecutor who asks for bail, to the judge who imposes a sentence, to the probation officer who monitors his or her release, everyone is going to be focusing on the career misdemeanor offenders."

By the measure of people behind bars, the initiatives have been a success. In his January "State of the City" address, Bloomberg said Spotlight was having a "dramatic impact" on identifying and prosecuting those who commit misdemeanors over and over, including prostitutes. "The result: More repeat misdemeanants like drug offenders, shoplifters, and prostitutes have been detained on bail before trial, and the number of chronic offenders serving jail time has increased by nearly 50 percent. The message: If you do the crime, you'll do the time!"

Vicki, who takes a bag of condoms from Nightworks, just did some time—60 days. She's seen a number of cops already on this particular evening and says she's got two fresh summonses, one for disorderly conduct and another for obstructing traffic. "Why should I go to court for a pink slip, pay $250 that I can't pay because you won't let me make a living?" she says. "I am a homeless female. Why you pickin' on me? I'm just trying to make myself a living. I'm not here to hurt nobody. We ain't hurting nobody." Ask her to recall how many times she's been arrested and she rolls her eyes. She says when she crosses the street the cops tell her, "You know you're not supposed to be in my neighborhood." This seems unfair to her. "I said, 'I can't go to my bakery to get some doughnuts?' In all my life I've never had this much trouble."

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