Street prostitution is no #yegsecret to those of us who live in core neighbourhoods, like mine, Alberta Avenue. Over the course of many years, we’ve been told why we should accept street prostitution in our neighbourhood. We’ve been told why we should not only accept, but “love” street prostitutes on our streets, near our homes, across from our playgrounds, by our schools, and I am sick and tired of hearing the same old refrain. Most recently, we have a Neighbourhood Empowerment Team, funded by Edmonton Police Service and the City of Edmonton through our own tax dollars, who repeat the the same old refrain we’ve heard for years, that focusses on the victimization of street prostitutes while trying to educate residents and repeating the same old refrain that we’ve heard over and over, which has done little to remediate the problem that we have street prostitutes in residential communities while making our neighbourhoods less safe than they should be. The EPS website says about NET Teams that : “Strong communities and shared responsibility for crime prevention are at the foundation of the Neighbourhood Empowerment Team (N.E.T.) program. Teams work with residents, businesses and organizations, building sustainable solutions to crime and disorder. N.E.T. promotes and supports participation in crime prevention activities, building on strengths that exist in all communities.” In my neighbourhood, it seems they work with a small group of chosen people who will buy into the same old stories that agencies that advocate on behalf of street prostitutes with big publicity (propoganda) budgets have been feeding the general populace for at least fifteen years, while actually not doing much but supporting the status quo – disempowerment for the rest of us.
Edmonton’s Sexual Exploitation Working Group (SEWG) is a collaboration of REACH Edmonton, City of Edmonton Community Services, CEASE, SACE, Region 6, ACT, Bent Arrow and other Community Organizations. This was formerly the Prostitution Working Group which was even more directly tied into the City of Edmonton. They provide a voice for women in prostitution but they have never provided a voice for residents of impacted neighbourhoods, except for those who are willing to espouse their view.
There may be some who are offended by my use of the term “street prostitute”. Over the course of the many years that I’ve been involved in various organizations in my community, we’ve been told what terms are appropriate to use for street prostitutes and street prostitution. First, there was an outcry over calling women “hookers”. Then we were told not to call them “prostitutes”. Then they were “women involved in the sex trade” or “sex trade workers”, more recently the most politically correct term is “experiential women”, I think. Yet, I believe in calling a spade a spade, and street prostitution is not “work”, nor is it a “trade”. Street prostitution is ugly, is connected to crime and is most often used to feed a drug addiction. It does not belong in residential neighbourhoods if it belongs anywhere at all (and I believe that it does not). It is what it is, and I won’t couch my words for the sensibilities of those who try to dictate what those words should be. I’ve seen impact on residents in my neighbourhoods and I want to speak about reality, and I refuse to do it softly.
While there may have been some street prostitution in Alberta Avenue earlier than this, our current problem really started in the late 1980’s. This is when residents started to notice a proliferation of street prostitutes and the accompanying “kerb crawler” traffic on our streets. There’s never been as much consideration to terminology for the men who cruise our streets to buy sex. They’ve always been called “johns” but as I know some pretty good men named John, and I’m not going to denigrate the trades by calling them sex trade offenders, so I’ll use the British term “kerb crawler”. Anyway, I’m digressing. In the late eighties, the powers that be decided that the street prostitution that was evident in our downtown, especially around 105 Street was not acceptable. At that time, prostitution was forced east and north, into neighbourhoods like Boyle Street (where the low-track already existed) and McCauley. Many residents of those neighbourhoods, particularly in McCauley started to complain to their City Councillors, and the police. They rallied in the streets. They rallied and held marches against street prostitution. Traffic calming measures were implemented, as well as one-way streets meant to deter street prostitution. As a result, street prostitution was pushed north into neighbourhoods like Alberta Avenue, Eastwood, and Parkdale. 118 Avenue and 95 Street became the “stroll”. Soon after, some of the very same residents who led these protests became “advocates” for street prostitutes, and one agency purchased a building and moved to the 118 Avenue strip. Since then, Alberta Avenue, Parkdale and Eastwood residents that have complained have been told by police officers, politicians and city staff that arresting street prostitutes will cause the problem to “move” and therefore our neighbourhoods have become the “place” for street prostitution to happen. The problem has also grown geographically and now impacts approximately 14 neighbourhoods in all, including McCauley and several neighbourhoods to the west, and neighbourhoods on 118 Avenue as far down as Beverly.
The well-funded agency lobby has been very strong in convincing the Police Commission, City Councillors, City of Edmonton Community Services and other politicians that street prostitutes should not be dealt with through our justice system. The argument that is now used is “supply versus demand”, that the way to make communities safer is to go after the supply, to re-educate men not to buy street prostitutes, and that this will “end” prostitution in our communities. They say that the act of purchasing sex itself is always exploitative (I believe that it often is) and that prostitutes have been and are continuing to be victimized (no one can deny that in many cases this is true). However, the truth is that the supply does not exist because of the demand, it exists because of addiction, and regardless of any attempts to achieve societal change and decrease the demand, it is addiction that drives street prostitution, addiction that still needs to be fed, and will continue to be fed, through street prostitution or criminal activity, as long as it exists. It is not normally about earning money for milk for children, regardless of the fact that early on, this was the propoganda promoted by advocacy agencies for street prostitutes, at least until, I suspect they figured that the public was no longer likely to believe it. At the cost of a minimum estimated $200/day to feed a crack addiction for example (that is an accurate cost), the salary of most regular jobs will not suffice, assuming that a person could actually manage to maintain a schedule and function well enough to earn that kind of a salary. This will not solve the problem of street prostitution in neighbourhoods, nor result in a reduction of street prostitution. It is also why many people who engage in street prostitution also engage in other crimes to feed their addiction. They have in fact, had at least fifteen years to prove that their supply/demand philosophy will have a positive impact on neighbourhood safety and that it will result in a decrease in street prostitution, and have failed miserably.
The fact is some of these individuals are dangerous, regardless of their gender. Many people with addictions to illicit drugs are dangerous not only because of the need for money to feed their addiction, but because of behaviour induced by some of the drugs to which they are addicted. Methamphetamine and crack often cause paranoid, aggressive and violent behaviour. Period. Even addictions experts or most police officers will not argue that this is not the case.
As a resident and as a member of the Alberta Avenue Neighbourhood Patrol for over ten years, I’ve seen a lot, and heard a lot from other residents. Even an agency representative warned us about the violent behaviours of some of the street prostitutes in our neighbourhood, many years ago. I am amazed at how this is never discussed and is in fact suppressed in discussions about street prostitution. I personally was strongly impacted when a woman I had met, Genevieve Stokowski, was murdered by a woman I knew to be a street prostitute in my neighbourhood. I was also impacted when I was, on two different occasions assaulted by prostitutes when walking in my neighbourhood and I admit that now I rarely walk anywhere alone. It is not uncommon for residents to be challenged by prostitutes here while walking or even driving through the neighbourhood. I can relate to you some incidents: a 12 year old girl that a prostitute attempted to force into a kerb crawlers car, a full bottle of liquor thrown at a vehicle that hit the window of vehicle behind which there was a baby and a young child, residents that were threatened by a prostitute with a grenade, random prostitutes yelling at mothers with children whom they perceive to be interfering with their “business” by being present on the public street, seniors followed or threatened by prostitutes looking for money, resident threatened by a prostitute with an exacto knife, teenager slashed on the arm by a prostitute with a knife, prostitutes who have tried to deal drugs to children, or forced their own children into prostitution. I’ve heard stories of prostitutes who have robbed men who pick them up, who have stabbed them with implements or knives, robbed them. I observed a prostitute “work” for a couple of hours on the same corner, get picked up by a man, observed the vehicles being followed by a tough looking group of young men, and then seen her return with them shortly after. I do not know what happened to the men but I assumed that it was not pleasant. I have listed to Vice Officers at “John School” tell the kerb crawlers about the penchant of some street prostitutes to rob them if they pick them up. I’ve seen many, many prostitutes deal drugs. In 2004, with an understanding that many street prostitutes also deal drugs, EPS ran a sting called Girl Interrupted. As a result, they arrested 55 prostitutes for drug trafficking. The agency outcry was so vocal that EPS has never run, to my knowledge, another sting like this. Residents voiced their appreciation but have never been able to complete with the well-funded agency voice.
Of course, then there are the common complaints of debris left behind, needles, broken glass, condoms, and that fact that many of our neighbourhood children have witnessed such things as sex in a car on their front street or a prostitute “flashing” oncoming traffic. Our children often do not have the same luxury of innocence of children in other neighbourhoods. They must learn at a young age to not pick up needles, or condoms. They need to learn that they should stay away from the prostitute on their corner; sometimes they are followed by men looking to buy sex. They see people engaging in acts that a child should never have to see.
We hear over and over about the violence and victimization perpetrated on street prostitutes but we never hear about the violence and victimization perpetrated on residents of our neighbourhoods by street prostitutes. In fact, agencies have been so successful in their lobbying that when a street prostitute is arrested for a crime and it is noted in the paper, or reported in an EPS news release, any relation to street prostitution is an “unmentionable”, perpetrating the myth that prostitutes are victims, but not the victimizers or criminals that they often are.
It’s enough. There is no “place” for street prostitution, certainly not in a residential neighbourhood. Residents of neighbourhoods like mine cannot afford to wait any longer for a street prostitute to be ready to change their life, nor should they have to, at the behest of advocacy agencies that have so entrenched themselves into political and EPS policy and our justice system that they have been able to negatively impact the right of neighbourhoods to safe, crime-free environments. I believe that the availability of treatment is essential. However, it should never be an option or a choice to continue to engage in criminal or disorderly behaviour in a residential neighbourhood to support an drug addiction. Period. We cannot wait for the type of societal change that will be required for no men to purchase sex ever. Even if that happened, I suspect criminal activity would increase as addictions would still be fed. It’s time for police, politicians and city staff to stop pandering to the loud and well-funded agency voice, at the expense of taxpaying residents. I expect that they will honour that our neighbourhoods deserve to be free of street prostitution and associated criminal activity and that they have an duty to uphold the rights of residents of our neighbourhoods to safety and security similar to other neighbourhoods in Edmonton. As residents of core neighbourhoods we should all expect this and we have a right to expect it. We did not create the problem – government policy, politicians, EPS, city staff did it and they need to resolve it. And they need to get on that. Pronto.