Prostitution in Portland: Women as commodity, victims

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PORTLAND — Proverbially, it is the world’s oldest profession.

Locally, advocates trying to end sex trafficking want a new approach.

“This is rape, no matter how much you smile,” Survivor Speak founder dee Clarke said.

A victim of sex trafficking in Boston more than 30 years ago, Clarke founded the nonprofit to help women escape the life she said too often begins with abuse as a child, leads to substance use disorders – and greater dangers.

“I am definitely sad because I know what their life is like and I know it can be different,” Clarke said.

Clarke’s is not the only outreach in the city for victims of sex trafficking;s Preble Street and the Police Department are also working to help. Clarke has also teamed with Jennifer Clark, the anti-human trafficking ministries coordinator for the Salvation Army in Portland.

Clark has helped open a day center for victims of sex trafficking, and she and Clarke spend evenings on streets in the city’s West End, and St. John and Valley Street neighborhoods offering encouragement, spiritual guidance and basic necessities such as toiletries to the victims they encounter.

Salvation Army Maj. Annette Lock said the outreach really goes back to the initial Salvation Army mission in London more than 150 years ago of transforming lives and caring for people, while Clark and Clarke said they want a modern recognition of who is truly the victim in sex trafficking and exploitation.

The diminutive Clark says her faith is a driving force.

“People think I am quiet and small, but I am passionate,” she said. “I care about these women because they are my neighbors.”

Clark said the day center and the ministry outreach established in 2012 provided Christmas gifts and donations to 19 people last year, including some children of sex trafficking victims.

Local and statewide statistics on sex trafficking can be elusive, and prosecuting cases against those exploiting sex traffickers can be difficult. However, the Maine Sex Trafficking & Exploitation Network, established in 2006 as a collaboration between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, estimates there are 200 to 300 cases annually in Maine.

In most cases, the victims are between 14 and 30, and about 40 percent of all law enforcement officers have seen sex trafficking cases.

To assist the outreach and day center, the Salvation Army is holding a 5K run/walk at Old Orchard Beach High School at 7:30 a.m. Monday, Aug. 1. Details and registration information can be found at bit.ly/2a59sfG.

As much as Clark and Clarke want to get victims of sex trafficking away from exploitation, West End neighbors want prostitution and its criminal side effects off their streets, too.

“With the prostitutes come the dangerous people we don’t want here,” resident Christine McHale said.

Sex trafficking has been a problem along Congress Street from Neal to Dow streets, with the 700 block of Congress often cited in police log calls.

McHale said she has seen her friends solicited in front of her home. She recalled speaking with a police dispatcher as she watched someone shoot drugs behind an adjacent home.

That’s just during daylight, she said, adding, “I keep my shades closed at nights.”

McHale and her friend, Natalie DiBenedetto, said they understand the city and police are strained for resources and are as responsive as possible to their complaints.

Their encounters with women working the streets have run the gamut of emotions, they said, but their quality of life in the neighborhood is most important.

“I’d do anything to help them get better, but I will not let them ruin the neighborhood,” DiBenedetto said.

DiBenedetto and McHale have also confronted men they said are pimps, and they keep their eyes on cruising vehicles. After seeing a “How’s my driving?” sticker on a vehicle driven by someone DiBenedetto said picked up a prostitute, she called the driver’s employer. He was fired.

“I don’t know how his driving was,” she said, “but I knew why he was stopping.”

Sex trafficking affects innocent bystanders, including children, Heather Tanguay said.

“My 12-year-old daughter was solicited and followed by a john as she walked home from school, at 3 p.m. one afternoon,” Tanguay said.

The man, driving a red van, offered her daughter a ride. Although stopped by police, he was not charged because he had not solicited sex from her. Since then, the van has been a familiar sight in the neighborhood, Tanguay said.

“Barring his soliciting an undercover officer, there seems to be no way to discourage his actions,” she said.

Pressure to stop sex trafficking in one area may only spread it to another, West End Neighborhood Association President Ian Jacob conceded.

Parkside Neighborhood Association President Emma Holder said sex trafficking is no longer a big topic at neighborhood community policing meetings, even though she recalls Mellen Street as a problem area in the past.

Downhill from the West End, sex trafficking is also becoming a larger problem. St. John/Valley Neighborhood Association President Tim McNamara did not respond to requests to speak about what is going on in the neighborhood. But McHale said she attended a meeting earlier this year where he and others spoke with city Neighborhood Prosecutor Rich Bianculli about sex trafficking.

Portland Police Officer Mark Keller said the city and residents need to understand the supply and demand of sex trafficking.

“In my experience, if you are alone in doing it or if you have a pimp or boyfriend that exploits you, you are just trying to survive and get by,” he said.

Keller recalled responding to a call near Washington and Cumberland avenues where a woman was severely beaten and left in the street.

A Cumberland County jury eventually convicted Scarborough resident Eric Gwaro on multiple charges, but Keller said it was the second time in about five years he’d responded to a call where she had been beaten up.

“The fact of the matter is, it is an invisible crime, (and) society can drive on without blinking an eye,” Keller said. “What we are not seeing is, the woman as a commodity is also a victim.”

Republican state Sen. Amy Volk of Scarborough has made human trafficking a legislative cause for several years. In 2014, her bill to increase fines against offenders soliciting or engaging sex traffickers, and to allow victims of sex trafficking access to the state compensatory victim fund, became law.

The law also allows victims of sex trafficking to present an affirmative defense if charged with engaging in prostitution. Volk also wants victims to be pardoned on past convictions.

“Going forward it will help, but it doesn’t help people who have that conviction on their records,” Volk said.

Because the governor is the only person in the state allowed to issue pardons, expunging convictions was not passed by legislators.

“But I am ready to have the conversation again,” Volk said.

Her efforts stemmed in part from the death of Megan Waterman, a Scarborough woman who disappeared on Long Island, New York, in 2010. She was last seen leaving a hotel to meet a customer; her body was discovered months later on a spit of land on the Atlantic Ocean.

Waterman was one of  at least 10 victims working as sex traffickers who have been found on that beach.

Volk wants anyone convicted of engaging a prostitute under the age of 18 placed on the state sex offender registry.

“The age of consent does not mean they are consenting to exploitation,” she said of the victims. “(The offenders) are pedophiles.”

The state may not be able to afford the cost of longer jail sentences for those convicted of engaging a prostitute, Volk said, but boosting the fines on offenders will have an effect.

“Getting to the purchasers and making sure they are penalized appropriately is going to be the only way to stop this,” she said.

Volk also sponsored a bill in the last legislative session to make it easier for trafficking victims to get protection orders against those who are exploiting them. On its face, Volk said the protection order may not seem effective.

“(But) it creates a paper trail, which is very important when you are prosecuting cases,” she said.

In Portland, Clarke and Clark want compassion and recognition, while West End residents want an end to what they have seen out their windows.

“A lot of it is just persistent love, when we see them week after week,” Clark said. “No matter what they do, we are here for them. If they relapse, we are here.”

DiBenedetto, however, said compassion has its limits.

“(Prostitution) attracts bad people,” she said. “The guys who are picking women up do not respect women or human life. When you bring those people in, it becomes dangerous.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Carleton Street in Portland’s West End neighborhood, where residents say sex trafficking on some streets is a frequent occurrence.

A “No Cruising” sign near the intersection of Walker and Congress streets in Portland’s West End is not the effective deterrent to sex trafficking neighbors want to see.

Jennifer Clark, left, of the Salvation Army and dee Clarke of Survivor Speak visit Walker Street in Portland on July 25, a place where they try to help victims of sex trafficking.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.