Getting women off the streets

Anna Quindlen

May 02, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

IN NEW York City there is a street vendor called the Rubber Man. He works nights selling condoms to prostitutes on the West Side, and he is one of the few people who has reason to be unhappy about what Judge Gustin L. Reichbach did when he was working the lobster shift.

Reichbach sits in Criminal Court, and one day not long ago he found himself assigned to the hours between 1 and 9 a.m., that sad and often tawdry time when most of us are turning an old used day into a newly minted one.

The judge recognized that the way the system deals with women who sell sex is ridiculous. The women themselves shrug off its absurdity on the dim stretches of city street where they work. A day in a holding cell, a fine. And back to the stroll.

Instead Reichbach offered them AIDS counseling, blood tests and condoms.

I was once accused of making prostitutes seem Damon Runyonesque because I wrote a story suggesting that they had hopes and dreams, and that their behavior owed something to the laws of supply and demand.

But whether we are willing to see them as human beings or not, the failures in the way the system treats them are emblematic of the way we treat other problems.

Fast and feckless. No thought of root causes or the big picture. And a contempt for the people involved that lends no urgency to the search for solutions. This is how we have often treated the poor and the homeless. This is especially true of how we have treated prostitutes. There was no vested interest in being innovative -- until now.

Dr. Joyce Wallace, the president of the Foundation for Research on Sexually Transmitted Diseases, who set up the information desk in Reichbach's courtroom and has since been asked to do the same for other judges, has been studying streetwalkers and AIDS.

A third of the women she's tested for her study are HIV infected. It's a powerful argument for getting women off the streets.

The question is how to do that. The wise-guy smart-mouth answer is to inhibit street prostitution by arresting the customers. If word got out that the men might spend 24 hours in the holding pen ("Hello, honey? Yeah, this meeting is running kind of long . . . .") it could have a chilling effect.

But those of us who remember the uproar when the Koch administration ordered WNYC to broadcast the names of johns know that this is not going to happen.

Perhaps the real key lies in Dr. Wallace's other findings. A quarter of the women she studied were living on the streets, in parks or subways. Many had a drug habit.

Almost 85 percent had children, but only 10 percent of the children lived with their mothers. ("Children?" someone once said when I was talking about some of the women who worked on 11th Avenue. "They have children?")

So an AIDS information desk and a handful of condoms are, at best, half measures. Dr. Wallace herself hopes to outfit a special bus to cruise the city, providing medical screening, housing and drug rehabilitation program referrals, showers, food and condoms to drug-addicted prostitutes in the areas where they work.

Dr. Wallace's research makes clear that prostitution is not the primary issue for many of these women, or, by extension, for the neighborhoods that understandably hate the sight of them climbing into cars or flashing customers.

Her study concludes, "Most of them would support themselves in another way if they had adequate skills to do so." Or, as one woman who works beneath the Williamsburg Bridge said last week, "What else I got to sell?"

Reichbach did a smart and humane thing. While some prostitutes use condoms, the desperate women who trawl the areas outside tunnels and beneath elevated highways will often spend their money on crack instead. Maybe the judge will save someone from HIV-exposure.

At the very least, one woman told him that he made her feel like a human being. It could save lives, their own and those of their customers, to help these women stay clean and sober, to give them a place to live, to teach them to earn the rent some other way, at the very least to urge them to use protection. In the process, someone might make them feel human, which seems like a good thing to me.

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