The Girls in the 'hood

"A pimp steals a woman's mind." American Pimp

On odd weekends 20th Street, between South Van Ness and Folsom, looks like a football tailgate party at three in the morning. Mini-trucks and SUVs cruise back and forth past the Shotwell Street barricades erected to halt such traffic, carrying men looking for prostitutes. Some of the vehicles blare rap and hip-hop music at full volume.

Meanwhile, sleepless residents make phone calls, try to avoid confrontations and hear the conversations f pimps outside their windows. Some of these residents are at their wits' end with frustration at what they see as the City's unresponsiveness.

"I've counted 300 cars in an hour, between midnight at one o'clock," said Jane Martin, one of the organizers of the Shotwell Street Neighborhood Association. Martin lives on the 300 block of Shotwell Street, an area similarly afflicted. Her association came together two years ago and was responsible for getting the police department to start putting up street barricades. "Before I moved to Shotwell Street I had no idea the problem was so bad. I didn't know people couldn't sleep at night," she said.

Residents complain about poor police response, cruising Johns and noise. This reporter has waited for half an hour for police response while screaming women were abducted on his block, and he has also seen police efficiency when a pimp, terrorizing a woman and slapping her, was arrested by two officers.

At a public safety meeting held January 23rd at the Centro del Pueblo in the North Mission, about a hundred angry residents expressed frustration with the deteriorating situation centered at 16th and Mission. Besides prostitution, residents were concerned about drug dealing gangs, public health problems caused by a concentration of homeless people in the area, and strong-arm robberies.

The meeting, put together by Supervisor Chris Daly, featured representatives from a number of city agencies including the City Attorney and District Attorney's Office, the Department of Public Works, the Mayor's Office and the Police Department. The principals of Phoenix High School and Marshall Elementary School and School Board member Mark Sanchez also attended. The tone of the City officials was apologetic, defensive and often evasive, but occasionally blunt.

However, residents, including representatives of five neighborhood organizations, and business owners were just plain angry. Roger Herried, the manager of the Redstone Building at 16th and Capp, who was assaulted on 16th Street, described the unchecked crime and violence he has observed on the street. The principal of Marshall School complained about junkies and hookers hanging around his kids and leaving needles in the bushes and in the playground, which is a favorite nightspot for shooting up.

When confronted with the drug, violence and prostitution situation, newly appointed Mission Station Police Captain Greg Corrales stated, "I've got 32 years' experience in vice and narcotics… I will get this neighborhood cleaned up in five months or I strongly urge you to get someone else." Corrales, to his credit, was the only one of the public servants present to promise that the situation would improve though his own efforts.

Who's responsible?

There is no shortage of points of view on prostitution. "There are two types of prostitutes working here," says Jane Martin. "Girls with pimps who come in from Richmond and East Bay, and local girls who don't have pimps and who are doing it to support their drug addictions. There are more underage girls in the Mission than in the Tenderloin, girls who are 13 years old."

"It varies, how many underage girls we get," Inspector Ed Del Carlo of San Francisco's Vice Division told New Mission News. "Between hookers and johns we make 50-60 arrests a month in the Mission. Juveniles take a lot more time to process. Last week we got six juveniles. Some weeks we won't get any. Their ages vary from about 14-17 years old, and they come from all over the place. They aren't locals, for the most part. Many of them are runaways. They come from East Bay, Oregon, wherever. The johns, I'd say about 60 per cent of them come from outside of the City, but that's not a hard statistic."

Inspector Del Carlo said that a lot of johns were netted through sting operations with female officers, but despite the arrests, prosecution is still up to the DA. Vice has no way of tracking of how many arrests end up in convictions.

"The DA is responsible for prosecuting these offenses," said Supervisor Tom Ammiano. "Everything can't be punitive, though. The City has advocacy programs for young women, job training, drug counseling. We're working really closely with the community on this problem and trying to find solutions."

Reg Smith, spokesperson for the DA's office, didn't have any hard statistics regarding prosecution of vice crimes, but talked instead of the DA's First Offender Prostitution Program created by Carolina Reyes Oak. "This program has won awards from universities and has become a model for the whole country. Part of it involves removing the supply side: the johns. They are forced to attend Saturday classes about the realities of prostitution. Our recidivism (re-arrest) rate for johns that have attended the program has been less than 3 percent."

"The current DA has been doing some good," admitted Jane Martin, "but they've been terrible with prosecution and obtaining convictions." While Norteño and Sureño gang violence has declined, the streets seem to be getting meaner due to a new wave of out-of-towners.

Life is not easy on the street.

On the morning of January 14th, the body of a woman who had an arrest record for prostitution was found on the corner of 18th and Alabama Streets. A suspect is in custody. The evening after the public safety meeting was cold and the Shotwell B- Girls were few, for a change. On the corner of 19th and South Van Ness, a shoestring-thin black girl ducked behind a parked Mustang as a police cruiser turned towards Mission. The same cruiser had stopped another girl for questioning on 20th Street minutes before. Later that evening, three squad cars surrounded a Cadillac on Shotwell at 19th. Was this part of Captain Corrales' promise to clean things up?

"If, as a liberal city, we want to accept sex as a business," says Ms. Martin, "then why is this allowed to be like this? I mean, these businessmen don't pay taxes. The City is not getting any cut out of this." Martin indicated that the police barriers on Shotwell were meant only as a temporary measure when they were implemented two years ago, but if they are removed the problem will only get worse. Often the pimps remove the barriers themselves, and Martin says she and her neighbors do not want to confront the pimps since she believes they are often armed.

"I like the money"

Mandy (not her street name or her real name) is a 20-year old African-American woman who has been working as a streetwalker for four years. Previous employment included babysitting and work at JC Penny's. She's lived in Richmond all her life, but recently moved to Vallejo.

"What I like about this is the money," she says. "It's very good money and I like the way I'm treated. I get anything I want. I work almost every day in the City. Well, I get two days off. I drive over. What I don't like is other pimps bothering me, and the cops."

The New Mission News asked if she liked her pimp.

"Oh yeah. I've known him for five years. I met him through his little brother. We went to school together… the little brother, that is."

Does she ever find her work dangerous?

"Yeah, yesterday a customer didn't pay. He pushed me out of his car after driving me way out of the way to his mother's house. Most of the time, though, it's very fun. Other girls like it, too."

What doesn't she like about the other pimps?

"Well, other pimps will see us on the street and act smart, say smart things, but you just ignore them to stay 'out of the pocket'."

"Out of the pocket" means that a "ho" is only supposed to look at her pimp and nobody else. If she looks at another pimp, he'll grab her and make her his. Of her co-workers, Mandy had this to say: "They're stupid, some of them are. If they be cool they on my level. I like the girls from Oakland."

Does she have any future plans?

"Well, I only want to do this for two more years. I've got some plans, nothin' solid. I'd like to travel around the world. I've got money. I've been half way around already. Vegas, Miami, Phoenix."

As I write this, the night traffic begins again outside my window. Raucous shouts (within the hearing of families with children) compete with and finally overpower the sounds of the bar next door. A bottle breaks when it is thrown into the street. Tonight somebody will pee in the alcove leading into the trash room, and the night ladies will strut down the street, dodging between parked cars as motorists slow down, stop, and the ladies hop in. It's a typical weekend.

Responding to public anger at the deteriorating situation at 16th and Mission. Captain Greg Corrales, newly appointed head of Mission Station, promised "If things don't improve you can run me out of town."