Stacey Midge unpacked donations into a set of lockers, focusing on a box of shampoo.
She pointed out the other contents of the lockers: sunscreen, deodorant, feminine-hygiene products, condoms and razors.
“I don’t always have those,” Midge said of the razors, “but I have them now.”
The items are part of a Schenectady Inner City Ministries-backed program called Patty’s Place, aimed at reaching out to prostitutes in the city with the eventual hope of getting them off the streets.
The idea is to engage them, build relationships and be there with a network of support for when the women seek it.
“You don’t see a lot of success stories in this kind of work,” Midge said, “because it’s just so difficult to break through all of the factors that are causing somebody to be in prostitution. But you do occasionally have success stories.”
Prostitution in Schenectady, its effects on the lives of the women and its causes have been pushed to the forefront in recent months, as city police focused on the crime.
Police in September arrested 10 women and a 16-year-old girl on charges of prostitution. Photos of eight of the women revealed two with obvious bruising and apparent injuries on some of the others, leading some advocates to speculate they’d been beaten related to their alleged sex work and that someone is benefiting from their work.
A sweep last month targeting those who pay for sex acts netted seven “johns.” Court paperwork in those cases revealed one man allegedly paid $15 in exchange for a sex act.
The September prostitution sweep, and the state of the women especially, has led to city police changing their approach to future sweeps, Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford said recently.
After early discussions with Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney, Clifford said, they’ve assigned individuals to follow up with the women to try to answer the question of whether they’re victims themselves of human trafficking, sexual assault or other crimes.
He said he is also adding domestic violence advocates from the YWCA to future prostitution sweeps to help answer those questions, as well.
Police previously debriefed the women, asking questions about their injuries, but not necessarily directed questions about whether they were possibly being made to do what they were doing. He said the changes are part of his ongoing effort to re-evaluate department procedures after becoming chief in mid-September.
“We have plans in place now that when we address prostitution at the street level, we can then debrief the females that are under arrest and determine if they are, indeed, victims that are in need of service,” Clifford said.
Advocates applauded the move in interviews recently, but they also acknowledged the difficulties inherent in trying to get a woman off the streets and into a stable life.
Midge listed several factors that push women into sex work and keep them there. Substance abuse, low income, poor relationships and isolation all contribute to lack of hope and support, she said.
And, if the women are being pimped out, there can be little incentive for the women to turn that person over to police upon simply being arrested, Midge said.
When the women get out, they’re back to being dependant on that person and possibly getting beaten if they talk, she said.
“So they have good reason not to trust the police and not to say ‘This is the person behind this,’ ” Midge said. “But I think the idea of having an advocate from the Y or from our services or Safe Inc., to treat the women sometimes as much as victims as they are criminals is helpful to approach that in a different way.”
Midge wondered, too, how the women got their injuries. Multiple women in the same area with injuries signals to her that there’s probably someone else benefiting from their work and that that person or multiple people are abusing them.
“I would be looking at how do we get at the person behind that,” Midge said.
She said they don’t look into that at Patty’s Place, as they’re trying to get the women into resources available.
“But, in terms of the police,” Midge said, “it seems like it’s really easy to catch the women who are directly prostituting. That’s a pretty easy sting. It’s much harder — and I think more necessary — to figure out who’s exploiting them in the first place.”
Kim Siciliano, director of women and family services for the YWCA in Schenectady, also questioned a simple arrest approach. The women are publicly humiliated and those possibly behind them in the power and control positions remain.
Women, she said, don’t grow up wanting to be prostitutes. Something has happened in their lives where they feel that is their only option.
“My concern is who’s behind this?” Siciliano said. “Where are the pimps? Where are the people that are controlling the situation? More so than these women.”
That’s where the focus needs to be, she said. The YWCA works with victims of domestic violence, but has some crossover in trafficking and prostitution issues.
She said the YWCA advocates can offer a keener eye on the underlying issues with the women during future sweeps, using their education and background. She said it would be an opportunity for everyone, especially the victims.
Regarding the impact on the women, Siciliano referenced the $15 figure.
“That doesn’t buy you much,” Siciliano said. “So how many times are you having to do that? What kind of mental effect does that have on you psychologically? It’s desperation. It’s hopelessness. It’s no way out.”
Carney said that when he spoke with Clifford after the September sweep, both were in agreement that they had to find out more about why the women are out on the streets and what’s behind it, if anything.
He said his office has long offered those with substance-abuse problems drug court and treatment, however, the penalties for prostitution — a maximum of 90 days in jail — often make a short jail term more appealing than long drug rehab.
“It’s difficult to do,” Carney said of trying to get the answers of why the women are in the situations they’re in. “But I think it’s important.”
Of the 10 women whose September cases are available, three have seen their cases resolved. Two pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, a violation, and received time served. Another woman pleaded guilty to the charge and received a sentence of 75 days fueled in part by violation of her probation in an earlier robbery case that garnered its own sentence.
One of the other cases lists treatment court as possible. Still another failed to show up for a court appearance last month and an arrest warrant has been issued.
Patty’s Place serves to reach out to those women and others who either are prostitutes or are at risk of becoming prostitutes. It started about four years ago from discussions among police, community and faith leaders. Midge’s regular work is as a pastor at the First Reformed Church in the Stockade neighborhood.
Volunteers have spent time since working to build up trust and credibility with the women, Midge said. It’s a slow process.
They use the supplies, sometimes given out from a table on Albany Street and sometimes by volunteers walking with backpacks, as a way to start the conversation, Midge said.
Before long, some can start to say things about their life.
She recalled one woman, who’d been a sex worker for maybe four or five years, came around after a few months and Patty’s Place helped her with services and with a job.
Some women, she said, just aren’t looking to get out of their situation.
“You can’t convince someone to do what you think is right, so we’re not in that business,” Midge said. “But we are in the business of being available for when the women want to get out of that life.”
Reach Gazette reporter Steven Cook at 395-3122, [email protected] or @ByStevenCook on Twitter.