PAWTUCKET—Large plate glass windows facing the busy intersection of Broad and Barton streets offer a window to the world that Project RENEW is trying to reach.
It's a dark world, involving prostitution and the drug habits that typically revolve off it, and as director of Project RENEW, Colleen Daley Ndoye has been immersed in it for eight years. However, since moving two years ago into the Pawtucket Citizens Development Corp.'s Broad Street location, Daley Ndoye said she and other Project RENEW staffers have witnessed first-hand many of the sex trade transactions that take place in that neighborhood. As such, they have been able to work closely with the Police Department to deter the activity by targeting the “johns” while also trying to reach out to the women involved.
Pawtucket Citizens Development Corp. is the host agency for Project RENEW, a nationally recognized initiative aimed at reducing prostitution and providing commercial sex workers with a way out of “the life.”
Started eight years ago, it is the only project of its kind in Rhode Island, and one of the few in the country providing HIV prevention, intensive case management, and referral services to female commercial sex workers, said Daley Ndoye.
Now, when anyone sees what appears to be illegal activity taking place outside, the license plate and vehicle description or other pertinent information is jotted down and a quick call is put in to the police. The hope is that that an arrest of the man seeking the sexual favor is costly enough in court fees and public humiliation to deter him from any future such activity.
“This is not a victimless crime,” Daley Ndoye points out, noting that the man can risk getting HIV or bringing a sexually transmitted disease home to his wife or partner. The other side of the equation is that the money paid out for the sexual act is typically going to feed a prostitute's drug habit. Also, she said the message that the police and Project RENEW want to get across is that this is no longer a neighborhood for prostitution.
The vantage point has also brought the Project RENEW staff closer to the troubled population of women it is trying to reach. Being right there on the street, the staff has observed various activities and behaviors that have prompted case workers to approach women directly and offer assistance. “We're so visible here, we see and hear everything,” Daley Ndoye said. “Our goal is to help these women, and show them that there is a way out.” She added that even if someone rejects an offer of help, they are at least made aware of the services that are available.
Daley Ndoye noted that the majority of the commercial sex trade workers have substance abuse, mental and/or physical healthcare issues, and approximately 70 percent are homeless. Project RENEW provides access and advocacy for services such as detox, substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, housing and other basic needs. It also provides HIV prevention education for this high-risk population.
The PCDC developed Project RENEW to address the longstanding problem of prostitution in the Barton Street neighborhood, and more specifically, to address the needs of commercial sex workers in Pawtucket, Central Falls and Providence. It is funded mostly through federal funding with some state dollars being provided.
For decades, Barton Street has had the reputation as one of the most notorious prostitution “hot spots” in the state. In addition, multiple resident surveys and focus groups have shown prostitution to be one of the most critical issues of those who live in the neighborhood.
There has been significant strides made in the past decade, Daley Ndoye noted. There have been many affordable housing initiatives that removed vacant and blighted apartment houses along Barton, Broad and Dexter streets and replaced them with attractive new housing units. The PCDC alone has spent an estimated $20 million on affordable housing, and hundreds of families now call the Barton Street neighborhood “home.”
Daley Ndoye credits the partnership that Project RENEW has with both the Pawtucket Police Department and the quasi-city Pawtucket Housing Authority, in changing many women's lives, as well as the neighborhood, for the better. “We've had many success stories. We've had people who were really hard core...who were arrested dozens of times, who have turned their lives around,” she said.
While the Pawtucket Police routinely conduct prostitution “stings” that result in arrests, Daley Ndoye noted that the police department also works closely with Project RENEW in trying to steer women toward referral services and treatment. She praised Pawtucket Police Major Arthur Martins, who sits on Project RENEW's steering committee, as being “an incredible partner” and the Police Department in general for being “very committed” to the cause.
When it comes to prostitution, Major Arthur Martins noted, “The police are still law enforcement professionals at the end of the day---we're not social workers, counselors or therapists. But we do understand that these women are not doing this because it is glamorous. The are feeding an addiction, and if we can cure that addiction, they won't be out there.”
Martins said that police do take an active role in encouraging crime prevention and trying to transform neighborhoods such as Barton Street, but realize they can't do it by enforcement alone. “It's a more complex issue,” he said. “Most of these women have problems with drug addiction, mental health issues, or sometimes both. There can be a host of problems that cause them to commit these acts.”
Martins added that the neighborhood “has come a long, long way” since he joined the city's police force 25 years ago. He pointed to the drop in the number of prostitution arrests around Barton Street from a high of 87 in 1999 to 59 in 2002 and 2003, to just 11 arrests in 2010, 5 in 2011 and 6 last year.
Again, Martins noted that if the drug addiction or mental health problem can be treated, the women will not be out on the streets in that area and men won't be there looking for them. He likened it to a matter of supply and demand.
Daley Ndoye also cited Pawtucket Housing Authority officials for their cooperation, noting that there has been a serious problem in recent years with prostitutes engaging in relationships with elderly male residents in many of the city's high rises. Oftentimes, the women spend the older men's Social Security funds for drug money, and many of these men have ended up drug addicted as well. “It's a parasitic relationship,” she noted.
“We consider this to be our neighborhood. We've worked so hard to change the reputation of it,” said Daley Ndoye. “We encourage our residents as well that when you see anything, call the police. We really want people to be on the lookout. We are trying to establish our own community police relationship.”
Martins also noted the positive impact of PCDC, which has spent money constructing new housing in the neighborhood. “There are many people residing there now who are law-abiding and want their neighborhood to be better,” he stated.
Martins said that having Project RENEW relocated to Broad Street from its former office in the Woodlawn Community Center is an asset for the neighborhood. “They are right in the heart” of the population they seek to address,” he stated.
Follow Donna Kirwan on Twitter@KirwanDonna.