Sex Workers, Advocates Challenge Mission Police

Tension is rising in the Mission on how best to react to the neighborhood’s sex workers.

Sex workers advocates gathered outside Mission Police Station for International Day to End Violence Against Women, Dec. 17, 2018. (Photo: Kevin N. Hume)

Two city-endorsed, publicly funded efforts surrounding sex workers in the Mission are clashing, hard.

St. James Infirmary, a sex-worker health and safety clinic, launched a mobile unit in the neighborhood a little under a year ago. Each week, trained outreach staff go out late at night, offering sex workers — who primarily find clients along on Capp and Shotwell streets — condoms, HIV testing, and mental support. Funded with a grant from Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office, it’s a harm-reduction model that’s proven successful; by meeting people where they are and providing the resources they need to take care of themselves, the overall harm in a risky profession like street-based sex work can be reduced.

At the same time, Mission police officers are being asked to enforce the law around prostitution, with a Sex Worker Abatement Unit created in response to some neighbors’ complaints about the nightly activities.

So some nights, sex workers can expect to find a friendly face in the peer-based model St. James has created. Others, they’re arrested and cycled through the revolving door of the city’s criminal justice system.

Naturally, the dueling approaches have created a tension.

“The Sex Worker Abatement Unit has gone counter to our program. They tell us they appreciate our program, and yet at the same time they are disappearing the people we are here to serve,” said St. James Mission outreach coordinator Celestina Pearl, at a gathering outside Mission Police Station on Monday. “We are asking publicly… Please, truly prioritize the safety of sex workers with us.”

Safety was front and center at Monday’s event on Valencia Street, which was held in honor of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. On paper, it appears that SFPD is on board: Earlier this year, they signed on to a policy put forward by advocates that granted immunity to sex workers who report incidents of violence to the police. But as efforts have ramped up to detain people soliciting sex — or merely sweep them from one block to the next — that trust among sex workers is pretty much nonexistent.

“The formation of the Mission police captain’s Sex Work Abatement Unit to aggressively arrest sex workers, clients, and others contradicts SFPD’s Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers Policy,” said Rachel West of the US PROStitutes Collective. “Police crackdowns create a hostile and dangerous climate for sex workers who will be much less likely to report violence, rendering the policy useless.”

At the same time, the number of people taking their sex work to the streets is only rising, thanks to the backward federal law FOSTA-SESTA — which intended to cut down on sex trafficking, but instead has shut down several popular sites people used to find and safely vet clients.

But street-based sex work is now made more dangerous by a rapidly gentrifying Mission, which, despite its contemporary multi-million-dollar-homes, has long been a space where sex workers operate. The newfound wealth is pushing every kind of vulnerable community out of the neighborhood’s limits, which inevitably sweeps up sex workers, too.

Not all Mission residents are pro-legal enforcement and anti-prostitution. Tessa Brown is a cofounder of a new group called Rad Mission Neighbors, created to combat her neighbor’s calls for sex work to be eradicated.
“Sex workers are our neighbors. We do not accept them being arrested,” Brown said. “We reject what the police have been saying, that policing makes sex work more safe. We only have to remember the case of Celeste Guap to know that police officers do not make young women safe. Police have killed sex workers, police can be sex offenders. We reject the police as a move to make sex workers more safe, we want an end to the increased arrests of sex workers in this neighborhood.”

That’s not going to be an easy discussion to have. At Monday’s press conference, when activists tried to enter Mission Police Station to deliver a letter to Captain Gaetano Caltagirone, police locked the doors and refused to let them in.

But the people who spoke up Monday aren’t going anywhere.

“Who’s our supervisor? Hillary Ronen?” asked Maxine Doogan of the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education and Research Project (ESPLERP). “Funding the van is great, but funding police’s enforcement is not. We’ll remember this next time you’re up for reelection.”

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