Talk to the shopkeepers who operate businesses in the small, no-name strip mall across the street from the old Montgomery Gardens public housing development, and you get mixed responses regarding possible prostitution in the area. Some say they’ve seen less prostitution since June, others say it continues unabated. But they all agree that prostitution exists on Montgomery Street between the projects, the Beacon Condominiums, and Florence Street.
Some of the neighboring streets are also affected. Over the summer, store owners and a few residents began complaining about an alleged increase in street prostitution that made the area seedy and unsafe.
This week, on Tuesday, Oct. 2, there will be a community forum at City Hall regarding what can be done to curb the problem and help the women involved leave the sex industry behind.
‘Some people in this world have too many opportunities. Other people, not enough.’ – Mohammad Malik
De Luca’s community meeting will take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at City Hall, 280 Grove St., in the second floor City Council Caucus Room.
‘You see them get in cars’
“You see the girls, they go from one corner, then they go to the next corner,” said Mohammad Malik, who runs a business at the strip mall. “You see them get in cars. Sometimes they hang out [at one end] of the parking lot or on steps.”
Three months ago, he said, it was worse than it is now. Malik said there are now only two or three women who still regularly look for customers near the strip mall. Over the summer, he said, there were sometimes as many as 15 women who worked the area.
“You would see them all times of the day, maybe beginning at five o’clock in the afternoon until late at night,” Malik said.
But another store owner named Muhammed Ali said there has been “no change. Still the same.”
Ali, who owns a party store in the strip mall, added, “When you call the police, they come 30 minutes, 40 minutes [later].”
The alleged prostitutes and their prospective customers clear out when the cops come, but will usually return within a few hours or the next day, he said.
According to Ali and Malik, the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) held two meetings with residents and merchants from the mall earlier this year to address their concerns. But the prostitution problem, they say, remains.
Police Chief Thomas Comey did not respond to four phone calls seeking comment regarding the department’s efforts to address the shopkeepers’ concerns.
De Luca said he has invited officers from the JCPD to attend the Tuesday forum, but it is unclear whether any of them plan to attend.
On one recent evening the Reporter spotted a woman who appeared as though she may have been looking for a customer. When asked if she was “looking for johns,” she said she was not.
“They stay over there,” she added, referring to the prostitutes and pointing toward Florence Street. She acknowledged, however, that there has been prostitution in the area.
On another evening the Reporter saw a different woman loitering in the same area, around Montgomery and Mill Road, but did not approach her or ask her any questions. On a third occasion a woman was spotted on Fairmount Avenue, near Amity Street. The Reporter was told that this woman was a prostitute, “one of the regulars,” but it was unclear whether she actually was one or not.
‘300,000 kids at risk’
Prostitution is illegal in every state in the U.S. except Nevada.
According to De Luca, who co-founded New York City Lawyers Against Human Trafficking and who has been involved in efforts to curb the sex trade industry since 2005, there is no reliable data on how many people may be working as prostitutes in Jersey City.
“There’s actually no reliable mechanism to track how many people are working in the sex trade industry,” De Luca said. “We know that close to 300,000 kids are at risk of being trafficked for sex, but we don’t have any reliable numbers for the localities. Trafficking implies that there is force, fraud, or coercion and often implies trafficking across international borders. But you can be trafficked in your own home. You can also turn to the sex trade on your own accord. It could be, because of economic reasons, you don’t feel you have any other options.”
The forum he is leading this week at City Hall will include presentations from three organizations that work to get women and children and other sex workers out of the industry.
A case manager from the Polaris Project will talk about that 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 Polaris where concentrates its work. But so far, New Jersey does not yet have its own safe harbor law.
Restore NYC, another organization that will participate in the forum this week, will this fall open a “safe house” in Northern New Jersey for people who are trying to break away from the sex industry. The organization already operates a similar safe house in Queens.
Finally, there will be a representative from the New York City-based Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), which assists teens and young women – ages 12 to 24 – who have been involved in the commercial sex trade. GEMS tries to address the needs of this group that are not filled by traditional social service agencies.
“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.’ ”
Malik, one of the shopkeepers in the strip mall, said he plans to attend the forum, adding that this is a community concern that should be ended, not pushed from one neighborhood to the next.
“Some people in this world have too many opportunities. Other people, not enough,” he said.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.