In the afternoons, the prostitutes would stand on the corner near Better Neighborhoods’ Albany Street office, not far from a local bus stop where children were dropped off every afternoon.
“People at [Better Neighborhoods] would talk to the girls and pray with the girls,” recalled Deb Baumes, who worked for the Schenectady nonprofit organization for several years and now volunteers there. “It was not a good thing for the neighborhood, or the girls. When we realized that we knew some of them personally, it started hitting home that they were someone’s daughter or granddaughter.”
Baumes began researching the problem and discovered other Schenectady organizations had also grown concerned about the large number of sex workers gathering just outside their doors. From this concern emerged a coalition of local churches, nonprofit organizations and other community-based groups and an interest in helping prostitutes transition out of sex work.
“We wanted to know what we could do to make this better,” Baumes said. “We thought churches might be willing to work on it.”
Set to open before the end of the year is Patty’s Place, a drop-in center for sex workers in Schenectady.
“We started talking about how to address the issue of prostitution and decided that this was one possible way,” said the Rev. Stacey Midge, who serves as an associate minister at First Reformed Church in the Stockade and is one of the key people involved in Patty’s Place.
The center will provide prostitutes with a safe space, the peer support of former sex workers, counseling and referrals to services such as drug and alcohol treatment programs and more intensive counseling.
Patty’s Place does not have an official opening date yet, but the goal is to be open on a limited basis in November, before winter sets in. Initially the center will be open from 7 to 10 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays organizers expect to serve mostly women, but male sex workers will also be welcome. Baumes said the organization is still confirming the location, which will not be publicly disclosed for security reasons.
An informational meeting for those interested in Patty’s Place will be held at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at State Street Presbyterian Church.
Organizers are also seeking financial and material donations. In particular, they are looking for couches, chairs, tables, a coffeemaker, a small refrigerator, cots, new women’s underwear, socks, sweatsuits and towels. Volunteers to staff Patty’s Place on Mondays and Wednesdays are also needed.
When developing Patty’s Place, the coalition sought the advice of former prostitutes who had successfully transitioned out of the business, Midge said. “We were very much guided by the needs and experiences of former sex workers,” she said.
Patty’s Place is an all-volunteer effort. Midge said that when the center is open, the goal is have at least three people there, including a former sex worker and someone with training in counseling. The idea is to provide prostitutes with a place where they can get warm and be safe, and then, when they’re ready, obtain the help and resources they need to change their lives.
Baumes said that in order for Patty’s Place to succeed, there needs to be a core group of people willing to build relationships with sex workers and “meet them where they’re at.”
Midge said Patty’s Place is in line with what Christianity is all about.
“Jesus had a history of hanging out with prostitutes, of helping those at the lowest end of society’s ladder,” she said. “We as a church have the same responsibility.”
Baumes, who attends State Street Presbyterian, agreed.
“To me, the church should be a place of healing,” she said. “Many people are afraid that if they go to church they’re going to be condemned and that they’re going to feel they don’t belong there. But we’ve all been through our own concerns and our own problems. The church is a place of healing for those who are seeking a new way of life and a new beginning. That’s what Christianity is all about and what Jesus was all about.”
Midge said Patty’s Place expects to help sex workers with a range of problems, and rates of substance abuse and addiction, abusive relationships and sexual assault will probably be high. Many sex workers also report being abused in childhood, she said.
“It’s about providing care in a non-judgmental way,” said Keith Brown, associate director of Catholic Charities AIDS Services of Schenectady, who has also been involved in Patty’s Place.
Prostitutes typically encounter social services as a result of an arrest, and they’re less likely to be receptive to help as a result, he said.
Schenectady is home to SAFE Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps teens and young adults escape or avoid prostitution and sexual exploitation. Patty’s Place is not designed to replace or compete with SAFE, said Midge, who serves on SAFE’s board. She said SAFE targets people ages 35 and younger, while the majority of people arrested for prostitution in Schenectady are over the age of 40.
Midge said the coalition studied similar programs when developing Patty’s Place, but “most of the services we looked at were in larger cities. People don’t expect there to be such a high occurrence of prostitution in a place like Schenectady.”
According to a 2007 report by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, Schenectady County had the second highest number of cases of child prostitution of seven upstate counties surveyed by the agency. For the study, researchers focused on counties where the rate of adult prostitution was known to be fairly high, and officials suspected that the rate of juvenile prostitution would likely be high, as well.
Schenectady police Sgt. Matthew Dearing, a spokesman for the department, said the city has a lot of prostitutes and many of them are repeat offenders. A program that helped them transition out of the trade would be helpful, he said.
Patty’s Place takes its name from a sex worker who was killed on the streets. Midge said the name was recommended by the former sex workers the group consulted on the project, and that she did not have a lot of details about her identity, or when she died.
Midge predicted the mission of Patty’s Place will evolve after it opens.
“It’s new, and we anticipate that it will change a great deal,” she said.