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Hookers invade NE

(Published July 30, 2001)


Staff Writer

Prostitutes hanging around Isle of Patmos Church at Rhode Island and Saratoga avenues in Northeast Washington used to get run off by the police after the Rev. Calvin L. Matthews dialed 911.

Now he invites them to church.

While the prostitutes have yet to show up at Sunday services, Matthewsí tactic has reduced the number of prostitutes that stand around in front of his 900-member church. But area businesses and residents say they are having a harder time stopping prostitution activity from taking over their neighborhoods.

Over the past nine months, and especially since the beginning of summer, prostitutes and their pimps are much more visible on the streets, sidewalks and motels along two of the cityís major commercial gateways Ė New York and Rhode Island avenues NE.

"There used to be just one or two prostitutes around, but now there is a whole heap of them," said Regina James, advisory neighborhood commissioner for 5B03 and president of the Brookland Civic Association.

In recent weeks, James said she has seen van loads of provocatively dressed women, some apparently in their early teens, dropped off and picked up in her neighborhood at all hours of the day.

"They are highly organized," said James, "and they are wreaking havoc on the motels, invading church property and residential neighborhoods."

While most of the activity occurs late at night, residents and business owners in the Woodridge neighborhood said that it is common to see prostitutes solicit sex out in the open and in the middle of the day. The situation has become so severe, residents said, that prostitutes often ply their trade in the entryway of St. Francis DeSales Catholic Church at 20th Street and Rhode Island NE.

Invading stable, middle-class neighborhoods, disrupting businesses and lingering near churches are signs to residents that the prostitution problem has gotten worse and they say it has gone on long enough.

"Itís time to stop complaining and do something. We need to let them know that they are not welcome here," James said.

The "cleaning up" of Logan Circle downtown is blamed by residents for the increase in prostitution activity along the less-patrolled Rhode Island and New York avenues. Abandoned buildings, several motels and a quick escape to Maryland where prostitutes and johns avoid persecution under D.C. law make this area of Northeast appealing to the trade, said residents.

Disputing many long-time residentsí claims that prostitution activity is at an all-time high, sa police official blames the time.

"Itís nothing new," said Lt. Eric Miller, executive officer of the Metropolitan Police Departmentís Central Regional Operations Command. "There have been problems with prostitution there for a generation at least. Because of the traditional cycle of prostitution, the summer months are always worse."

Miller said 17 police officers are assigned to the prostitution unit, and on any night there might be five working undercover to make prostitution arrests along New York and Rhode Island avenues. Police pose as johns or as prostitutes to make arrests, Miller said.

Police also keep an eye on motel owners, Miller said. Some owners knowingly encourage prostitution by either renting prostitutes rooms at discounted rates or renting them rooms by the hour, he said.

While Miller blames some motels for helping prostitution flourish, other local motel owners have been complaining loudly to elected officials for help they said they arenít getting from the police.

At one motel on New York Avenue, the manager said he keeps a list of 50 pimps and prostitutes that he refuses to rent to.

Recently, pimps and prostitutes have been paying people to rent rooms for them because they know the manager will not rent a motel room to them, he said.

They also do business in the parking lot of his motel, the manager alleged.

Any prostitution activity keeps out-of-town customers and families away and only hurts his business, he said.

Calling the police sometimes solves the problem and other times it doesnít. "While some police are doing good and some are doing bad, there are not enough police officers," he said.

Some residents said that while police seem to be doing the best they can, there simply arenít enough police on the street to stop the prostitution.

"Are the police doing enough? Are there enough police officers? The proof is in the pudding if you canít see police in the street," said ANC Commissioner James.

A concerted effort, such as that made by police in previous years downtown and around Logan Circle, needs to be made in the Northeast commercial corridors to stop this problem, said Deborah L. Smith, advisory neighborhood commissioner for 5C10 and president of the Edgewood Civic Association.

"Officers drive by and donít do anything about it. If this was going on in Georgetown or Foggy Bottom, the situation would be dealt with immediately," Smith said. "The police department and other agencies are not taking the situation seriously."

In the meantime, citizen groups like the Orange Hat Coalition try to make up for what the police cannot do. The coalition and others like it in the District were modeled after the original Orange Hat Coalition, started in 1989 by a group of citizens in the Fairlawn neighborhood in Southeast Washington to work with the police to take back their streets.

Around the Rhode Island corridor in Northeast Washington, every night about six or eight people patrol the neighborhood, taking down license plate numbers and keeping an eye on things.

"Itís scary to walk up to cars that you donít know, but you have to take a stand," said Anthony Hood, an Orange Hat member and president of the Woodridge Civic Association. "If two people are sitting in a car at three oíclock in the morning, they are probably not doing something thatís legal."

The Orange Hats do good work as citizens, but they are not the police, ANC Commissioner Smith said.

"What we need is a creative way to trick the customers and the prostitutes so they donít know when we will be coming around," she said.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator