In Camden, prostitutes pick between handcuffs and helping hand
CAMDEN - Inside a small brick church on Ferry Avenue, young women, eyes red and faces drawn, sat at tables picking at doughnuts and weighing the decision before them.
Minutes earlier, they had been arrested, most along Broadway on Camden's south side, on prostitution charges as part of a daytime police sweep.
Now they had to decide whether to face the charges or agree to enroll in a rehab program and leave their street lives behind.
"None of these women woke up and thought this was where they'd be," said Brenda Antinore, founder of Seeds of Hope Ministries, a group that helps the poor, homeless, drug-addicted, and women engaged in prostitution. "People don't really understand. They use the term sex worker. They call it a career choice. She has a name. She's someone's mother, daughter."
Prostitution, largely fueled by drug addiction, has long been a problem in Camden. Typically, women are arrested, issued a summons, and released almost immediately back to the streets.
The sweep was the first in what police say will be a bimonthly initiative among community groups, police, and the Camden County Prosecutor's Office aimed at getting the women help.
Instead of taking the women to jail, officers bring them to an annex at Antioch Baptist Church where nurses provide STD and pregnancy testing, and volunteers offer counseling as well as hugs and prayer.
"We're trying to reach those in need with love and compassion," said Pastor Cynthia Brown of the House of God Church on South 10th Street, who was at Antioch to help.
So long as a woman has no outstanding warrants, it's up to her whether to proceed to jail or agree to go to a shelter and then rehabilitation. Of the 10 women arrested Wednesday, five agreed to enroll in rehab.
While Philadelphia has Project Dawn Court, a prostitution intervention court for women with nonviolent records, Camden has no diversionary program, hence the importance of this initiative, collaborators said.
"We've noticed younger faces. They're coming from different counties and more frequently. Those are things we want to avoid," said Sgt. Elizer Agron of the Camden County Metro Division police.
For some women, the prospect of rehab is scarier than being fingerprinted and issued a summons.
"It's shocking. You'd think they'd want to do it, but the addiction is just overtaking them and this is the game they know," Agron said. "These women have been let down in so many ways. They just see themselves as objects and they certainly can't trust anyone."
A woman who called herself Jojo was picked up in the sweep.
"I want to be a better mom. Own a house. I hustle, I sell my body, it's not right, I know that," she said.
She also knows how dangerous it is. A few months ago, a man who paid her $35 for sex hit her in the face with something, breaking her eye socket. Now she has a plate on the right side of her face. "When it rains, my eyes get foggy," she said.
She said she does drugs to block everything out and only sees her five children, who live with other family members, a few times a week.
When the conversation started, Jojo said she would go to rehab, but when she learned she'd have to enroll immediately, she reneged and was eventually handcuffed and led out of the building. "I want help," she said. "But I'm not ready to get it."