Residents last week attended the first of what may become a series of community-wide forums designed to stem prostitution in Jersey City by helping the teens and women working in the local sex industry to find a way out.
In what attorney and forum organizer Stephen De Luca called a “work session” on the sex industry in Jersey City, several community members came out on Oct. 2 to hear from three organizations that help women and underage boys and girls get out of “the life.”
The forum arose partly because people have complained about what they say are sex workers walking the beat exists on Montgomery Street in the area of the projects, the Beacon Condominiums, and Florence Street.
Kait Keisel-Stagnone, the New Jersey program coordinator for the Polaris Project, and Ulana Tatunchak, also of the Polaris Project, spoke Tuesday about the organization’s outreach efforts to get sex workers into transitional housing if necessary, and counseling services. Polaris successfully lobbied for a “safe harbor” law in New York which reduces penalties for and provides victim services to minors who are arrested for prostitution. With offices in the Garden State, New Jersey is one of two areas where Polaris concentrates its work. But so far, New Jersey does not yet have its own safe harbor law.
‘The most common age of entry is between 13 and 15.’ – Janice Holzman
This means the state has laws on the books in eight important categories that Polaris considers each year, but still lacks laws that require law enforcement to get training to identify and assist sex workers. Nor does the state have a human trafficking task force, as many other states have.
Janice Holzman, communications and development director for the Harlem-based Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), which assists teens and young women – ages 12 to 24 – also spoke about her organization’s work to help people escape the sex industry.
“The most common age of entry [for people recruited into the sex trade] is between 13 and 15,” said Holzman, noting that many children who are in the foster care and the child welfare system are particularly vulnerable to be recruited into sex work. “So when we talk about adult women working in the commercial sex industry, women over 18, chances are that they’ve experienced exploitation prior to that moment.”
Anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 kids nationwide are at risk of being trafficked in the sex industry, according to De Luca and Holzman, although different organizations use different statistics.
Most members of the community who attended the forum are also advocates for the homeless and wanted to know what can be done to assist homeless people who may be selling sex for food or shelter.
“Is there something we can be doing better to get shelter and beds for these people?” asked Imtiaz Sayed, who attended the forum. “Because we see them out there among our homeless population.”
Sayed and others also asked whether there were phone numbers or resources that members of the community could give to sex workers who may be ready to leave the industry.
Holzman, however, said that approaching a working street walker could jeopardize that person’s safety if she is being monitored by a pimp, and could also jeopardize the safety of the person approaching the woman.
She added that it was better for trained law enforcement officials to do the street outreach to the sex workers rather than untrained members of the public.
GEMS, Polaris, and Restore NYC, a third organization that participated in the forum, all offer specialized training to law enforcement so they can reach out to sex workers and channel them to safe houses and other resources – such as domestic violence shelters – that might help get off the streets.
Participation of law enforcement critical
But law enforcement needs to be aware of what resources are out there. Polaris has, for example, partnered with certain convents in the area and is able to use these spaces as shelters for some of the girls and women the organization works with.
Restore NYC has its own safe houses available, including a new one in Northern New Jersey. Referrals to these spaces are facilitated, in part, with the help of law enforcement. But it is unclear whether law enforcement in Jersey City and Hudson County are aware of these available options.
No representatives from law enforcement attended the community forum, although De Luca said he invited members of the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office and the Jersey City Police Department to the event.
“We need the police department to be here. They need to be a part of this,” said Riaz Whahid, who also attended the forum.
In the meantime, residents seemed prepared to address the issue on their own. Another meeting has already been set up for Tuesday, Nov. 13 at City Hall.
“This is the beginning of a long process, a long dialogue,” said De Luca. “We can’t expect to end this overnight. Our hope is to get the process started, and it will take some re-education on the part of the public to see these women as victims rather than a ‘problem.’”
Anyone who is interested in assisting someone who wants to leave the sex trade industry is encouraged to call the Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-3737-888. People who are engaged in the industry themselves can also call this number on their own behalf.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.