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Prostitution Round Table:
Innovative Solutions Help
Women Make Better Choices

By Kate Dernocoeur
Photography by Johnny Quirin

Prostitution is an enduring undercurrent in every city, including ours. The “world’s oldest profession” is loaded with persistent cultural messages — including that phrase — that project a wrongful stereotype of a situation better described as a bundle of human rights issues.

At least, that’s how The Prostitution Round Table (PRT) sees it. For four years, this innovative, highly collaborative group has convened almost monthly to examine the issues surrounding prostitution.

Dozens of people from more than 35 community organizations have studied the unimaginable hardships faced by people in the sex trade (see sidebar). They have tallied the cost of law enforcement, social services and health care for these women who are also sisters, daughters, mothers and friends. Prostitutes? That’s one way to say it. More accurate: They are prostituted women.

“ Saying it that way focuses responsibility where it belongs — with the customers — and helps remove blame from the women,” said Jeannie Hosey, project coordinator for the PRT since its inception in 2000. A planning and communications consultant, Hosey and her business partner, Dotti Clune, facilitate the PRT. They also authored the 80-page PRT Report to the Community titled “We Can Do Better,” published in 2002 by The Nokomis Foundation (available online at www.nokomisfoundation.org). The PRT was the first project of the Nokomis Foundation’s New Voices Initiative, a venture intended to focus on marginalized women and girls.

The goal of the PRT, the report says, is to “help women and girls in street prostitution in Grand Rapids make positive choices for their lives.” PRT participants examined the human and social costs of the sex industry. Common stereotypes and dismissive attitudes, they discovered, interrupt solution finding. And they confirmed that a system of support relies on a broad, long-term view that’s daunting in this quick-fix world.

But the PRT has introduced heartening beginnings. Several programs have evolved as outgrowths of the PRT:

The Open Door Program, funded by and housed at Degage Ministries, 144 S. Division Ave. Since October 2003, the Open Door has provided safe refuge for women from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. It is staffed by women recovering from many of the same issues as women coming off the street. Program director Shellie Cole-Mickens, a member of PRT and a master’s-level social worker, is a felon and recovering crack addict.

The Social Work and Police Partnership (SWAPP), a partnership between Grand Valley State University’s School of Social Work and the Grand Rapids Police Department. In this innovative program, social workers ride along with community police providing direct assistance for prostituted women, as well as assistance in court, jail and elsewhere. “We’re everywhere,” said program director Keisha Plowden.

Start Treatment of Prostitutes (STOP), a day treatment program spearheaded by Cindy Sikkema, probation officer for the 61st District Court.

Cole-Mickens warns that putting programs into place, while a good start, is not enough. These women, she said, “come in the Open Door and it’s our job to link them with appropriate services in the community. They go into different programs, but they don’t have the long-term, supportive housing conducive to recovery in an environment where these issues can be tackled in a holistic and systematic fashion.” Such housing, echoed others, is high on the PRT’s wish list.

Sharon Killebrew, executive director of United Methodist Community House and PRT member, agreed. “It’s a population that you have to accept has been in a lifestyle for many, many years and involves many other issues,” she said. “It’s not like you bring (these women) through in a few months. It’s a long process. I give the women so much credit for each step they make. It’s courageous. It’s difficult.”
Because of the PRT, many agencies have shifted the way they address the needs of prostituted women. Simply rephrasing questions about prostitution is yielding better information. For example, girls may tell interviewers they are not being prostituted. But their “no’s” often turns to “yes’s” when asked, “Are you trading sex for food or a place to stay?” Children on the street don’t think of such trade-offs as prostitution.

Other shifts are occurring. “A lot of organizations didn’t begin a new program,” said Kym Mulhern, president and CEO of Nokomis Foundation. “Instead, they changed their existing programs to incorporate issues of prostitution.” Many West Michigan agencies — among them Arbor Circle, YWCA, Planned Parenthood Centers of West Michigan, Project Rehab and Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women — have discovered ways to identify the issues faced by prostituted people and have amended services appropriately.

The PRT is so innovative and unique that other cities — such as Battle Creek, Kalamazoo and Saginaw — have asked about it. Grand Rapids is emerging as a role model in this important, underserved area. Inquiries have come from Chicago and as far away as Dallas. Once again, this city has taken a lead, and deserves to feel proud. GR

The Prostitution Round Table Speaker’s Bureau provides a free educational program appropriate for all ages. Using Powerpoint and video, speakers describe the PRT’s work, its outcomes, and ways to help. Length is tailored to each group. Contact Pamela Bayes at (616) 458-3404. Kate Dernocoeur is a free-lance writer who lives in Lowell.

   
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