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Policing, Stigma Hinder Sex Workers’ Access to Social Services, Report Finds

September 10, 2020
by Colin Poitras

At a time when municipalities across the country are reviewing police department funding, a new report shows that harmful police practices are one of the biggest barriers preventing street-based sex workers in New Haven, Connecticut, from accessing vital social services.

The report was compiled by the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership (GHJP) in collaboration with the Sex Workers and Allies Network (SWAN), a New Haven-based harm reduction and advocacy group. It recommends diverting funds from law enforcement and investing them in social service organizations.

Doing so, the report said, would help street-based sex workers connect with local social service programs capable of addressing their individual needs such as shelter, food, substance abuse treatment and stable employment in an appropriate, meaningful and respectful way.

“The vulnerabilities detailed in this report are not foregone conclusions but rather the result of policies and practices that we have the ability, incentive and ethical obligation to change,” said former GHJP Clinical Fellow Poonam Daryani, who helped supervise the research. “Addressing the marginalization of sex workers requires confronting the systems that perpetuate violence and inequity in our communities.”

The Global Health Justice Partnership is a program hosted jointly by the Yale School of Public Health and Yale Law School. The partnership tackles contemporary problems at the intersection of global health, human rights and social justice. The GHJP offers a practicum course each year that engages Yale public health and law students in real-world projects with scholars, activists, lawyers and other practitioners of social and health justice.

The report, Mistreatment and Missed Opportunities: How Street-Based Sex Workers are Overpoliced and Underserved in New Haven, CT, is based on a needs assessment survey conducted by SWAN among 49 of its members. Respondents ranged in age from 22 to 61. Yale students preformed background research, developed the survey and analyzed the results under guidance from GHJP faculty, staff and SWAN.

Among the report’s key findings were:

  • Street-based sex workers have precarious and insufficient access to social services.
  • These service gaps are not due to a lack of services, but rather issues related to accessibility and acceptability of existing services.
  • Despite pervasive food and housing insecurity among survey respondents, 54% reported difficulty accessing food from a free meal service.
  • 34% reported having been turned away from a shelter at least once.
  • Only 23% reported confidence that shelter staff would treat the with respect.
  • Despite all respondents having health insurance, most didn’t access needed health services due to a lack of trust and stigmatization.
  • Frequent interactions with the criminal justice system create hurdles to finding stable employment.

“No one asks people on the street what they need,” said Beatrice Codianni, SWAN’s executive director, explaining the organization’s motivation for the survey. “Until people understand how sex workers have been denied services and neglected by our systems, we can’t solve anything.”

Codianni and other leaders at SWAN began collaborating with the GHJP in November 2016 following the arrest of 14 alleged sex workers in New Haven as the result of a law enforcement sting. SWAN wanted to document the experience of community sex workers and identify service gaps and barriers to community and state aid. In the report, SWAN and the GHJP list specific strategies to eliminate those barriers and provide local policymakers with a road map for future harm reduction, such as expanding access to the overdose prevention medication Naloxone. The report also provides recommendations to address sex care workers’ housing and health care needs as well as ways law enforcement practices can be amended to improve outcomes for community sex workers.

“We’re dismissing human beings by ignoring their voices — and that is what we hoped this survey would start to change” said Codianni. “It’s a wakeup call to other service providers and the city of New Haven. We hope they will act on the report’s recommendations and reach out to SWAN to figure out how we can better work together to support the safety and health of sex workers in New Haven.”

The report notes that while well-intended, police-driven diversion programs for so-called “quality of life” criminal charges, such as those associated with sex work, drug use and homelessness, often fail and are not appropriate for connecting sex workers with social services, medical care or other forms of welfare. A more effective approach would be to decriminalize consensual sex work and invest more resources in community-led assistance programs unaffiliated with the legal system, the report said.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on September 10, 2020