When I talked to a woman who sold sex on Salt Lake City's streets on-and-off for many years last week, she referenced concerns about a man in a blue Astrovan stalking and attacking sex workers on State Street. One woman, she says, escaped from his van at the price of a having a chunk of her hair yanked out.
Asian Association trafficking victim advocate Gina Salazar says she's heard similar stories from women who go to the drop-in center she has open every Thursday afternoon for "working girls" to provide counseling, services and a safe place to just rest for a few hours.
Salt Lake City Police Department Detective Greg Wilking confirms that there are a number of cases involving a driver of a U.S.-made blue mini van threatening and hurting women on or close to State Street. "He's been on our radar for a while," he says, and the P.D is "actively looking for that person."
He's not the only man the police are interested in regarding assaults on street sex workers. Vice has several cases moving forward against a man who used a machete to threaten women into performing sex acts.
Such incidents regularly occur with women selling sex on the street, Wilking says, "where a john doesn't pay, but instead uses violence. It seems to be a consistent thing that happens."
Salt Lake City councilwoman Erin Mendenhall would like to see women who sell sex on the streets of District 5 provided substance abuse and mental health services in a safe location away from the dangers of the streets. Earlier this month
, she got through a civil penalties ordinance that may bring pressure to bear for greater vigilance on no-tell motels that turn a blind eye to criminal activity in their rooms, which in turn becomes a nuisance of worse for their neighbors.
Mendenhall also hopes to see a long-term, trauma-informed residential care facility built, but in order to get there, she and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill have decided to conduct a needs assessment of what she terms trafficking victims who sell sex on State, Main and North Temple. The assessment will quantify both the number of people in need and what those needs are. Up until now, the annual Point in Time census of the homeless has not included sex workers at motels because they are deemed to be housed under federal definitions.
Gill and Mendenhall have each put in $20,000 of county and council funds respectively to pay for the assessment. "We both recognize at this moment that with the fund raising needed to get the resource centers off the ground, it needed more than the collective will to get closer to a facility," for trafficking victims.
Talk to women who sell sex on the street and they will typically deny any association with the idea that they have been trafficked. "I've had similar conversations with independent-sounding women who live and work around State," Mendenhall says, "and who deny the existence of a pimp in their daily lives. Yet I think we would be hard pressed to prove in their history they weren't brought into this through what we would define as trafficking, be it through a father, boyfriend, relative, male or female. I do include what people call 'sex workers' in the category of who I hope can be captured in the data that we gather and ultimately served by a facility. I think it's unfair to restrict an individual to access to services based on solely where they are today and not take into account their complex history that has led them to standing there today."
Mendenhall anticipates that the definition of trafficking victims will include individuals trafficked through massage parlors and other walk-up businesses.
Salazar is one a group of advocates that has worked with Mendenhall on these issues and welcomes the progress towards the needs assessment to put some numbers and levels of vulnerability to a population she has longed worked with.
But when she last spoke to City Weekly
, her concern was less focused on the johns and the lack of services, and more on the police. There has long been tension between the drop-in center and law enforcement, with allegations from Salazar and some of the women that they have been targeted upon leaving the center.
Two weeks ago around 4 p.m., Salazar says officers were "touching each girl as they came out of the drop-in." She told them to stop harassing the women, because they would stop getting services at the center. "They need services to get off the street," she says.
One officer was painfully explicit in his view of the women. "If they are on the street, then they should get raped," Salazar says a well-built cop informed her.
Since she was unable to identify the officer, Det. Wilking was unable to shed any light on the officer's comment.