Sunday, February 27, 2011

2011-02-27 "Bankrupt Vallejo becomes magnet for hookers; Neighbors, decimated police force overwhelmed" by Kevin Fagan from "San Francisco Chronicle" newspaper
Eight p.m. on a Friday in Vallejo. An icy fog cut through Dog Girl's thin, plaid coat as she scanned the passing cars, looking for a john to drift by. She clutched her pet Chihuahua tight and grimaced.
"It's rough out here, but rougher in Oakland," she said. "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.
"And if I have my dog I make a little extra. Some guys like that. Sick."
A man in a gray Toyota sedan pulled up.
"You working?" he said, leaning out the window.
"Fifty bucks, and it's gotta be in a motel," said Dog Girl, a street name - she did not want to be identified for fear of being arrested. "Too cold outside."
"Get in."
The skinny streetwalker in her late 30s had driven over from her home in Berkeley, and she'd been on the corner of Sonoma Boulevard and Ohio Street for only 10 minutes. But it's typical to be picked up that fast in Vallejo these days.
There's a job boom for hookers in this economically battered town of 117,000 - and it's drawing women from all over the West.
It's also drawing a community-wide effort to tamp down the problem.
Vallejo has been hit hard by red-ink budgets and police cutbacks. That doesn't make it unique in the Bay Area - other cities that historically have battled prostitution, such as Oakland and Hayward, are suffering from similar problems.
Those cities, however, still have the resources to take on prostitution. FBI agents joined Oakland, Hayward and other cities' police recently to break up child and Asian prostitution rings. Oakland's city attorney went to court in December to shut down three motels where hookers allegedly ply their trade.
But Vallejo has not been as lucky.
It is so broke that in 2008 it became the first California city to declare bankruptcy over entrenched budgetary problems. City officials have had to trim the police force from 155 to 90, leaving the remaining officers with little time to haul in hookers and johns - and word of this traveled fast in the street trade.
As a result, streetwalkers and pimps have come from as far away as Oregon and Mexico to work Vallejo.
Turning tricks in Vallejo pays anything from a $2 crack rock, for the most desperate, to $500 a day for the most organized who take Internet bookings or have good pimp connections. The full range of streetwalkers is on display in tight dresses or pants and high heels 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in the northwestern part of town just a few blocks from City Hall.
Prostitutes have hawked their services in the area since Vallejo's founding 150 years ago as a maritime town. Easily accessible by freeways - Highway 29 runs right through the middle - it's a region of wide streets with small businesses scattered among spacious old Victorians.
Many of those homes retain their stylishness and, thanks to the housing collapse, can be had for bargain prices. Gentrification has spread in recent years along Alabama, Marin, Sacramento and Kentucky streets.
Which makes the explosion of hookers all the more vexing to the locals.
"Vallejo is a really nice town, and we'd all like to see it live up to its bones," she said. "That can't happen if we see hookers every time we look outside our windows."
The problem isn't just on the sidewalks.
There are also tricks being turned by homeless hookers occupying the growing stock of abandoned houses. Two such squat-brothels, near the corner of Sonoma Boulevard and York Street, had their windows and doors broken in for easier access last month and were littered with used needles and condoms.
Longtime local prostitutes and pimps feel the sting of competition from the newcomers who drive in from out of town, and sometimes get into screaming disputes on the sidewalk.
"I had two pimps fight each other in my front yard in August, and before you knew it five people were involved," said Kathy Beistel, 47, who lives in the core trouble area. "I called the cops, but they never came so I went outside myself and yelled at them, chased them away.
"That's how I became block captain of my neighborhood watch group."
There's little joy on the other side of the equation.
"It's always been a hard job, with all these new ho's it's just so much harder," one longtime street hooker with no teeth, a 43-year-old woman known as Toothless, said one afternoon on busy Sonoma Boulevard. "I was up all night. There are so many, they push me around. I work too hard.
"I wish I could find another life."
Organizers are also looking into starting rehabilitation programs for hookers and johns to help them turn away from the trade, rather than have them spend a short jail stint and resume their behavior. Pimps are mostly being targeted for arrest.
Task force leaders are in talks with area police agencies to get help with patrols, and are exploring grant funding.
Meanwhile, at least 20 neighborhood watch groups have formed what some call "ho patrols" to walk their streets and ask streetwalkers, pimps and johns to go elsewhere. Beistel leads one of the more active ones several times a month.
Many fed-up residents are taking matters into their own hands. Some pour lard or cooking oil on yard fences to prevent hookers from sitting on them as they wait for johns, and others spray prostitutes with hoses if they linger too long.
"I have two little girls inside, and I can't let either of them go outside unless I'm with them now," 40-year-old Tera Rollins said, right after dumping a half-gallon of cooking oil on her front fence one recent afternoon on Marin Street to chase away two suggestively clad women.
"You think it's fair I have to explain to my 9-year-old what a prostitute is?" she said, eyes blazing with rage. "It's sickening."
But these efforts are all works in progress.
For now, a "for sale" spirit on the streets prevails.
"The word is out," said retired Vallejo police Sgt. Bob Sampayan, who helps lead the mayoral task force. "This is where you come if you want to walk the streets, and we're getting them from everywhere.
"Nevada, Oregon, Los Angeles - you name it," said Sampayan, crime prevention coordinator for the Fighting Back community organization. "They all know this is the place to come."
As worried as city leaders are, the police themselves are more exasperated.
"What can we do?" Officer John Cunningham said one recent evening as he packed a woman he suspected of hooking into the back seat of his car. "We don't have enough time to do everything. I just booked two burglary suspects, I have a ton of calls backed up, and then we get calls from residents about this girl. We're overwhelmed."
The woman, thirtysomething Chandra Brown, was on probation for a prostitution conviction in 2010. She'd been walking slowly past City Park on Marin Street, and a man who approached her furtively dashed away when Cunningham and his partner, Officer Shane Bower, pulled up in their cruiser.
"You know, we're here because we got some calls that you are here selling," Bower told Brown.
"Don't know what you're talking about," she mumbled from the back seat.
"Get lost or we're going to arrest you for prostitution again," Cunningham said, letting her out of the car. Brown hurried away into the park.
"There are girls like her from all over," Bower said. "They hear that we have fewer cops and fewer pimps here, and there are tons of customers. The younger and prettier ones are coming from Walnut Creek, Texas, Minnesota, Nevada. And then we have the long-timers who have always been here. There are just too many.
"The minute we put them in jail, another group takes their place."
Last year, Vallejo police arrested 80 people for prostitution, 25 percent more than the previous year, according to the mayoral task force. That doesn't count the hundreds of interactions like the one with Brown.
Nevertheless, she has high hopes for the city's new effort.
"These are women who, most of all, need help," said Foreman, who as manager of Youth and Family Services Rosewood House, a rehabilitation center for addicted women, has counseled street prostitutes for years. "They are mothers, daughters and sisters, and who knows what kind of dysfunctional family backgrounds they've had.
"If they had alternatives and more stable lives, they wouldn't have to do this work," Foreman said. "But with the recession hurting everyone, it just makes sense you'd see more of them out there. If we can set up good programs, not just for the women but for the johns, we can make a permanent difference."
It will take a lot of elbow grease, everyone involved agrees.
"We have no funding, so we're trying to use the resources we already have," said Mayor Davis. "But we have sheer determination. We are going to get this done, and we will be an inspiration for other cities."

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