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SF Supe's Program to Address Sex Work

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Supervisor Hillary Ronen.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen.  (Source:Rick Gerharter)

San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen has announced she's launching a pilot program to address public safety concerns around sex work in the Mission district.

Through the program, which will start in January, Ronen, who represents District 9, will work with St. James Infirmary, an occupational health and safety clinic that offers free medical care and other services to sex workers.

The program's being funded through the city's budget process. The money will allow St. James to do peer-based outreach in the Mission to engage with people involved in sex work during "peak hours" - midnight to 5 a.m. - and find out workers' health and safety needs, Ronen's office said in a news release.

Capp and Shotwell streets are well known for drawing sex workers and their clients. Ronen's staff stated that neighbors often call Ronen's office expressing "frustration from excessive noises, acts of violence they witness against sex workers, and both johns and pimps speeding with their cars up and down the street."

The city's longtime strategy has been to perform sting operations to arrest pimps and solicitors, but the arrests just push sex workers to the next street.

"Residents who live in these hot spot areas regularly contact me very upset - not only do they often hear late night arguments, but they can actually hear women being beaten. One constituent told me he witnessed a woman being beaten with a pipe outside his window," stated Ronen. "We need the police to be actively monitoring these areas, but that is not enough. I don't want to continue doing the same thing if it yields the same unwanted result. I want us to engage directly with the sex workers and increase public safety for everyone in the neighborhood."

Sex workers often fear reporting incidents to the police because many have been mistreated by officers, according to Ronen's office, and that makes it difficult for the district attorney's office to charge "exploitative and violent johns and pimps" who've been arrested in the stings.

"This partnership is an innovative way to make contact with sex workers, in particular women, on the street who have been incredibly isolated, to know if they are victims of violence, and see if they are looking for another way of life," said Ronen.

Johanna Breyer, St. James' interim executive director, stated the nonprofit "focuses on the needs of sex workers by involving them directly in the services and advocacy they receive to be healthy and safe." The agency will have a mobile unit in the Mission every week, said Breyer.

About 70 percent of St. James' participants have never disclosed their occupation to medical or social service providers, "fearing poor treatment," according to the agency. The new program will allow sex workers "to get help on the street, and gain access to healthcare support and empowerment opportunities."

Spokespeople for the San Francisco Police Department didn't provide comment for this story. An aide to Ronen didn't respond to an email from the Bay Area Reporter asking how much money is being dedicated to the program.


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