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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one
 

Drop-in center for sex workers still a great idea

By Sara Foss
Sunday, March 30, 2014

Back in 2012, I wrote an article about an initiative called Patty’s Place.

Spearheaded by the Rev. Stacey Midge, an associate minister at First Reformed Church in Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood, Patty’s Place was to be a drop-in center for sex workers.

The idea was to provide prostitutes with a safe space — a place where they would find shelter and warmth, as well as respite from, say, an abusive pimp or john. But volunteers would also be trained to assist sex workers with long-term goals, such as leaving prostitution, by connecting them with resources and organizations that could help them transition to a new and better life.

I thought Patty’s Place was a great idea.

Schenectady has a prostitution problem, and I believed that a drop-in center, staffed by non-judgmental, understanding volunteers, could provide sex workers with the tools and means to change their lives, or at least consider it.

I had once interviewed a prostitute named Heidi, who recounted her long history of substance abuse and prostitution arrests. During a brief stint at the Schenectady County Jail, she told me that she had been arrested seven times, and that she planned to return to the streets as soon as she was released. “I just left here seven weeks ago,” she said.

My conversation with Heidi convinced me that arresting sex workers and throwing them in jail will not rid the streets of prostitutes. And that shaming and shunning them won’t do the trick, either. I wondered whether a less punitive approach might make an impact.

In early March, the Gazette ran a couple of stories about an especially ugly side of prostitution — the trafficking side.

One story, by Steven Cook, looked at whether immigrant women arrested on prostitution charges in four relatively recent raids at area massage parlors had been forced into the commercial sex trade. A shorter story reported that two Troy residents faced sex-trafficking charges for allegedly plying a woman with heroin, confining her to a hotel room and selling her for sex.

Reading these stories, I got to wondering about Patty’s Place. Was it still in operation? I swung by Midge’s office at First Reformed Church last week. She told me that Patty’s Place is going through a transition and will be closed for about a month until it reopens around the beginning of May.

The hiatus will give Patty’s Place time to regroup and reorganize.

The facility that houses the organization — the exact location has never been publicly disclosed for security reasons — needs repairs. New volunteers are also needed, as is a new outreach team — people to walk the streets and tell sex workers about Patty’s Place. An intern will be arriving for the summer, which will help provide stability.

Midge said that Patty’s Place’s first year-and-a-half was both a challenge and a learning experience.

“It was even harder to work with this population and build trust than expected,” Midge said. “We had the growing pains every startup encounters.”

Patty’s Place was open two days a week for about a year, and then one day a week.

“Ultimately, we’d like to be open five days a week,” Midge said.

Midge said that the sex workers who visit Patty’s Place have gotten involved in prostitution because of “problems in their lives.” These problems can make leaving sex work difficult. “[Prostitutes] are often in an abusive relationship,” she said. “They often have addiction issues. Most of them have been physically and sexually abused since they were little. They can’t see the possibility of a situation where they are not using their body to get what they want.”

Reports of prostitution arrests in the Capital Region are frequent; Midge noted that most of the women served by Patty’s Place are in their 30s and 40s, and have been working as prostitutes for years. Many of them have been arrested more than once, and are in need of counseling and drug treatment.

While some of the sex workers who visited Patty’s Place began taking steps toward leaving street prostitution, “some women were not ready to leave the life yet,” Midge said. The hope is that the relationships this latter group develops through Patty’s Place will enable them to make changes when the time is right, she said.

I still think Patty’s Place is a great idea, and I’m optimistic that the organization will return from its hiatus and make a difference. I’m less optimistic about prostitution itself, which is called the world’s oldest profession for a reason and seems to be in as much demand as ever.

And while Patty’s Place might help some sex workers change their lives for the better, it won’t address the conditions that cause people to take up sex work in the first place, or the customer side of the equation. A small, mostly volunteer-run organization can only do so much.

Like me, Midge is also optimistic about Patty’s Place’s future.

“We’re reviving,” she said.

 
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