On A Mission

One politician and a group of advocates step up for the safety of Mission sex workers.

It was quiet on Shotwell Street in the early hours of a Sunday morning. A few lamps glowed behind curtains in the Victorians lining the block, their residents getting ready for bed, or already asleep. The hustle of Valencia Street, with only 10 minutes until the bars closed, was too far away to hear, but Lyft drivers cruised through the four-way stops, taking revelers home after an evening out.

While the rest of the city was settling in for the night, for some, the work day was just starting. On Shotwell, two young women in their 20s laughed as they strolled down the middle of the street, car headlights illuminating their miniskirts and tall heels. They stepped aside as a sedan drove past, then strolled back into the middle of the road, looking for work.

San Francisco is a city of numbers. We enthusiastically track housing prices, area median income, and who lives and works here — from the millionaires in Pacific Heights to the people who live in tents under the highways. Every two years, dozens of volunteers hit the streets to manually count everyone who appears to be living unhoused. Based on 2017’s 80-page “point in time” report, 7,499 people are experiencing homelessness in San Francisco. Some 59 percent of them have been homeless for one year or more, and 22 percent are on the streets because they lost their job. And the numbers go deeper — into criminal histories, dependency on intravenous drugs, military backgrounds.

We also track HIV/AIDS rates, in a quest to reach zero new transmissions or HIV deaths by 2020. Data from one year ago shows that there were 16,010 people living with HIV in San Francisco — a population that’s broken down further by race, income, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Collecting data is not meant merely to satisfy our curiosity about who lives in our seven square miles. It also informs policy, supports basic human rights, and helps secure funding for advocacy groups targeting those who are struggling with adversity. We need these numbers. Yet so many of the people who make up the fabric of this city fly under the data-obsessed radar of San Francisco’s advocacy groups and policymakers. Undocumented immigrants are difficult to track, as are people living down the dead-end dirt-paved roads in Hunters Point, hidden from the efforts of outreach workers.

But not all these untracked populations are in hiding. Some walk the same streets that we do, as we commute to yoga classes, juice bars, and brunch spots — only under the veil of darkness. In the Mission District, between midnight and 5 a.m, a population emerges that no policy makers, advocacy groups, or outreach workers are paying attention to.

It’s not news that Capp and Shotwell streets are hot spots for sex workers, but who is out there, what their working conditions are like, and what their needs are is completely unknown.

That’s about to change.

Shotwell Street is a hot spot for street-based sex worker activity. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

The sizable sex-work industry that takes place on two residential streets in the Mission is not news for Supervisor Hillary Ronen, whose district includes this area.

“We get complaints from constituents, and we have for decades, because sex work has been in and around Shotwell Street for — well, it could be hundreds of years,” she tells SF Weekly. “When I was chief of staff for David [Campos, her predecessor] we received complaints, and when I became supervisor a year ago we were still receiving complaints.”

Those complaints — primarily from residents of Capp and Shotwell streets — “ebbs and flows,” Ronen says. “There are noise complaints, complaints of literally seeing women assaulted on their front steps. There are complaints of people having intercourse or finding condoms on their property. Complaints of johns or pimps speeding their cars, and violence. There have been shootings, beatings. It’s a rough situation.”

These issues are raised in nearly every community meeting between police and neighborhood residents. But the complaints residents have aren’t easy to solve, and in a city where sex work is still illegal, having cops interfere in the industry can be counterproductive.  

“There’s a knee-jerk response to say, ‘We don’t like the way this looks, let’s call the police’,” says Sara Miles, who’s lived on Shotwell Street for 24 years. “And that doesn’t do anything to address the issues that bring people to engage in sex work.”

Miles’ neighbors’ attitude concerns her. Instead of cooperation between residents and sex workers, there are requests for police to run more sting operations, hang out on street corners, and scare off the people who come out at night to make a living.

“I was really disturbed by the response of my neighbors on Shotwell Street,” she says. “There’s a difference between feeling uncomfortable and being unsafe. Many who’ve moved in recently and view their houses as investments worry they won’t be able to uphold the value of their homes. That is not the same thing as being unsafe. Being uncomfortable does not give you the right to demonize other people.”

Nevertheless, the collective call for enforcement has resulted in an occasional increase in police presence on Capp and Shotwell streets. Mission Local reported that in April, Mission Police Station ran a prostitution-abatement operation that — in just one week — yielded 25 arrests and 20 citations.

Yet the workers are still out there, perhaps just a block or two from where they were before.

“We were trying different things and having them not work,” Ronen says. “Police are only going to get so far, in terms of what they can do. They may decide to prioritize an area and run stings, and go after the pimps and the johns, and they do that for a while and then people move a street over, they leave, and it all happens again. It’s similar to homelessness, in a way. You don’t get anywhere when you just use enforcement-only approaches.”

Former Mission Police Station Captain Bill Griffin implied a similar belief at a community meeting in September.

“It’s not quite as easy for us. It’s hit and miss,” he said. “We come out, we do enforcement actions, and the next day we’re right back to where we were before. So that’s a little more complex.”

“A little more complex” is an understatement. “The city is a very complicated ecosystem,” Miles points out. “Things don’t stay static.”

“We realized we had to look at it from another viewpoint and perspective,” Ronen says. And with the cops’ limitations and the residents’ frustrations peaking, she called in some experts.

In January, St. James Infirmary, a peer-based health clinic for sex workers, will launch a mobile outreach van to check in with sex workers in the Mission District. The van, and a newly hired outreach worker, will be the first dedicated advocacy program sent to work with this population — and it’s being funded by $120,000 from Ronen’s office.

(From left) Leticia Brown, Stephany Ashley, Anita Durt O’Shea, Aria Said, Juba Kalamka, and Kalash KaFae MagentaFire pose for a portrait in the colorful lobby of St. James Infirmary in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District Tuesday, July 18, 2017. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

St. James has long been a force in San Francisco. Since 1999, the clinic — which was first established in SoMa, before it was evicted and moved to the Tenderloin — has offered medical and social services for those employed in the sex industry, be they strippers, street-based workers, employees of massage parlors, or escorts. The commitment to a peer-based model means that with a couple exceptions, all of the staff — from the executive director to outreach workers — have participated in paid sex work. With decades of experience helping workers navigate legal, medical, and emotional services, there is little that the St. James team can’t handle.

But even they haven’t spent much time with sex workers in the Mission. Part of the reason: their location.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that every single person who has experience in the sex industry is going to want to come to one place, whether it’s the Tenderloin, SoMa, or Nob Hill,” says interim Executive Director Johanna Breyer. “We have to be realistic about reaching people where they’re at.”

For sex workers living or working in the Tenderloin, St. James’ physical clinic is an amazing resource. Its judgment-free harm-reduction model offers medical care, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, emotional support groups, and even massage, reiki, and acupuncture.

Some of these services go mobile, collaborations permitting; St. James’ HIV-prevention and harm-reduction outreach workers hold testing and support service sessions at different spots — like strip clubs — around town. While that expands the infirmary’s reach beyond its clinic, it’s still limiting.

“Working with venues and having our peer counselors operate inside the building is a different thing than calling people off the street in front of an establishment,” outreach worker Cary Escovedo says.

So when Ronen approached St. James to ask what it would take to get some outreach workers to build relationships with the street-based sex workers in her district, St. James asked for a van and enough money to hire someone to run it between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m.

“It will be a van that will just be ours,” Breyer says. “Probably not like a full RV as huge as the AIDS Foundation’s, but something more along the lines of a Sprinter that allows people to come in, step in, and get off the street for a minute, and where we can carry more supplies and cover more territory because we’ll be on wheels.”

What the van will offer workers will be dictated by what they want and need, but it will definitely include condoms and STI testing. Caseworkers or nurses may sometimes catch a late-night ride to check on the emotional and physical well-being of street-based sex workers in the Mission. “As much as we can squeeze into that van, we will,” says Breyer.

Staff will also connect people to something like the Bad Date List, where negative interactions with johns can be anonymously posted through St. James as a safety resource. The app can be accessed on a phone or desktop, and builds a violence prevention network created by and for sex workers.

Whoever St. James hires to manage this multitude of responsibilities will have their hands full. A job description for the outreach worker asks that applicants do everything from answering from the front desk phones, to collecting data, to driving around the Mission District in the early hours of the morning. Added bonus if they speak Spanish.

St. James is not intimidated by this new task — “We’ll go knock on any door, if we have the resources,” says Breyer — but they do acknowledge that the Mission is, literally, a new territory for them. Because of that, outreach will begin slowly while the team figures out who the sex workers in this neighborhood are and what they need.

“We’ll do some drive-bys for the first month, and get an idea of who is out there at different times and days,” says Breyer. “We want to be out there where it’s most effective, to be able to reach the most amount of people. We’ll see.”

(Courtesy Image)

Ask anyone who’s spent late nights in the Mission District who the people working the streets are, and you’ll get a slew of opinions.

Bob Allen has lived on Shotwell between 20th and 21st streets for four years. On his block, he’s noticed that many of the sex workers are African American — some cis women, some transgender — many with Latino johns.

Others I spoke to corroborate this, and add their own observations. I talked to Mission residents, bar owners, advocacy workers in other fields, and late-night Lyft drivers. The rumors were frequently the same: Women of color dominate the sex workforce on Capp and Shotwell streets, though some had seen groups of white women on corners as well. Several mentioned there are young girls being driven over from the East Bay. Others claimed that local gangs had a stake in the game. But everyone agreed on one point: The traffic of workers is inconsistent. Sometimes activity would die down for a week or two, then pop up in a new area.

There has not been a comprehensive study on sex workers in the Mission District, but there have been some small studies done citywide. In 2007, Dr. Alexandra Lutnick interviewed 247 San Francisco sex workers, collecting some basic facts. Forty-eight percent of the people she talked to were African American, 68 percent worked primarily on the streets, and 79 percent reported physical assault while working. Forty percent had sexual relations with a cop. But these numbers are a decade old, and in the end, are just numbers, not a comprehensive look at a unique group of people.

Last Saturday night, the Mission was hopping. On Capp between 18th and 19th streets, women walked the streets and leaned against walls — either in pairs or alone. As I walked past one Latina, seemingly in her early 20s, I spotted a blue glow out of my peripheral coming from the driver’s seat of a parked car. A man, his phone lighting up his face, watched me as I walked by.

Shotwell Street was busier: At least 10 women worked the stretch between 17th and 21st streets. The trends began to become clear: If someone wasn’t teamed up with a partner, there was always a man sitting in a car nearby. It was the middle of their work day, and after an hour of walking, I went home to bed.

Allen has done a better job of getting to know his nightly neighbors.  Over the half a dozen conversations he’s had with sex workers in the past couple months, many told him they’d work other jobs if there were better options, or if they’d had better schooling. They want to be safe, they say. They’re out there doing their things, and they don’t want people harassing them.

Sup. Hillary Ronen at City Hall, Jan 9, 2017. (Jessica Christian)

It’s hard to set goals for a program when the population being served has not been clearly identified. But there are some things that everyone involved wants to see happen.

“Physical safety,” says Ronen, the neighborhood supervisor. “Making sure that people are safe from STDs and are protecting themselves from pregnancy — really, all the health impacts that this job presents.

“Because it’s a criminalized activity, it drives it further underground and makes it more vulnerable to exploitation and more dangerous work,” she adds. “Even just the time of day that the majority of this work happens. … The normal protections that you have where work is done in daylight and where people are walking around, are gone.”

Those protections are at the center of a policy that’s been sitting on Police Chief William Scott’s desk for weeks. Called “Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers,” the policy would offer those working in the industry sanctuary-city-style protections. If a woman is harassed or abused and chooses to speak to authorities or file charges, she will not be at risk of legal retaliation.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Ronen says. “The whole reason we have a sanctuary city is so that victims and witnesses of crime feel comfortable coming forward and accessing services and making reports to the police department. We’ve got a very similar situation with sex workers. We’ve accepted it in this city for immigrants. Why haven’t we accepted it for sex workers? It just makes sense.”

St. James Infirmary hopes the city will sign off on its policy by Dec. 17, to coincide with the International Day To End Violence against Sex Workers. And if it’s passed, the future looks a little brighter for those earning their living in the sex industry.

“If we had all of these things in this place — the immunity policy, the bad date list, we’re on wheels — then it would potentially create a safer environment for people to come forward, whether it’s about someone who violated them who was a paying customer, someone from the neighborhood, random acts of violence, or they’re targeted out on the street, or the police,” Breyer says.

“All of this is really about safety and violence prevention, and for us, supporting sex workers regardless of their situation,” she adds. “Sex workers are part of the neighborhood. We can address this together without doing harm. These are your neighbors.”

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