Sign of a struggling economy: Vallejo's prostitution problem

Photo by blogger "TheFonz1608." http://thefonz1608.wordpress.com/2010/10/18/vallejo-california/

Back in 2008, Vallejo became the first city in California to declare bankruptcy. Since then, it’s had to cut its budget drastically, including police officers. Over the past few years the department has dropped from 155 to 90. It’s meant rising crime, and one criminal industry that's been flourishing in Vallejo has been prostitution.

The San Francisco Chronicle's Kevin Fagan has reported on prostitution throughout his 30-year career as a journalist. He recently wrote about what's going on in Vallejo and sat down with KALW's Ben Trefny to talk about it.

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BEN TREFNY: You begin your article on prostitution in Vallejo by quoting a woman who calls herself Dog Girl. "It's rough out here, but rougher in Oakland," she says, "and I'd never be able to take my dog with me for tricks there. We've been beaten up before ... But here, nobody cares what you do. I can make good money here." So, tell me Kevin, what did you find in your reporting on prostitution in Vallejo?

KEVIN FAGAN: I found that there's more opportunity for street walking there than in other cities right now. Vallejo, a couple of years ago, became the first city in California to declare bankruptcy directly off of financial distress. There are other forms of bankruptcy, but this is … it's serious. They're out of money and they had to lay off about a third of their police force.

And between the financial distress and the kind of opportunity that's always been in Vallejo for prostitution on the streets, word went out as far away as Mexico, Washington and Texas that if you wanted to turn tricks, you come here. And ... it's turned into a real issue for the residents, politicians, and Vallejo – it may be broke, but it's a pretty little town. It's got really nice neighborhoods and it's got really sincere people trying to do lives with their children and raise a family in as good a way as they can ... So, it's an issue.

And the thing that drove my story is that the city is trying to do something really proactive about it. They've put together a task force to address this in a really sensitive way, rather than just a "jail 'em and hope it goes away" way.

TREFNY: Well, and they don't even have the officers to really just jail as many as they can, anyway.

FAGAN: They don't! They don't. And even if they did, simply putting someone in jail doesn't always do the trick. You need to rehab people.

TREFNY: You spoke with Dog Girl in your story; you spoke with other prostitutes who are out there. Could you tell me a story of one of theirs? How they ended up doing that, or how long they've been doing it for?

FAGAN: Well, I tried to include two contrasting characters in the story. And one was a long-time streetwalker called Toothless. Toothless has been there a long time; she's very distressed. She has no teeth; she's obviously in pretty poor health. She sleeps outside quite a bit; she turns tricks for very little money because she's pretty worn out. She looks worn out.

TREFNY: How old is she, about, do you know?

FAGAN: Mid-40’s. But, that's what we call a "Street 60." You know, you can generally add 15, maybe 20 years, depending on the tread-wear to someone who's been living on the street for a long time. And then there was Dog Girl, who was younger – I think 20's, probably early 30's. And she had a lot more vim and vigor, and sass and snap in the way she was selling herself. And she had the dog, which was a bizarre gimmick to find on the street.

I've never talked to streetwalkers who haven't had really distressed upbringings and distressed experiences with men. Every streetwalker I've ever talked to in the street, who either sleeps outside all the time or occasionally does because they're so desperate – you get past the initial stories and you get into the 3 a.m. kind of conversations ... and there's no way they want to be out there. They would much rather have a better life.

TREFNY: Prostitution is often referred to as the world's oldest profession, so it's obviously not going to end. But what are some of the most effective ways you've found for authorities to handle the practice, both on the side of protecting prostitutes, controlling it or rehabbing John's ... that kind of thing?

FAGAN: Well ideally, an officer will arrest either a John or a prostitute. Off to jail they go, and then ideally, instead of just staying in jail, what they do then is that they get referred to a rehab program of some kind.

There's a wonderful program called Sage right here in the city that runs what they call the "John School.” And it's had enormous success in showing johns how to change their behavior by bringing in women who had worked in it, and I think they're generally out of the business by the time they get to Sage. And they say, "Look, this is what happened to my life as a result of working with people like you." It's never happy, like I said. There's a lot of distress; it's not a good way to live. And the men come to see the women as humans, which is the most important thing, as opposed to just sex objects.

Now, for the women, a lot of times it's either financial distress, or drug addiction, or sometimes alcoholism. There's something that drives that behavior; there's a need that they're filling with the money that they can make quickly on the street.

And there are places like Rosewood House in Vallejo that I mention in the story. That's a wonderful program that helps women, and Susie Forman is the one who runs it. She and I spent some time on the street together on this story and she and her crew have enormous empathy for the women and know how to help them.

And the challenge is to find a way to route women into that kind of program and to route men into the kinds of programs like Sage, and to do it in conjunction with police and in conjunction with the political will.