But on a typical night, Sgt. Irvin Riley of the Vice Unit says his squad sees and arrests the same faces—though the faces deteriorate so rapidly they are sometimes hard to recognize at a glance.
Riley says he doesn’t know why the stings focus more on scooping up the people selling sex than the people buying it.
“It’s just for some reason been that way and I don’t think if you asked a high authority within the police department or within law enforcement, they could even give you an answer that would make any sense,” he says.
On a recent night in July, a sting is going down in Kensington, a neighborhood Riley says is the worst area in the city for prostitution. It’s everywhere and comes cheap; $20 is the average rate for sex.
Not yet twilight on a weeknight, Riley drives only a few blocks before he spots the first working girl. All bones in dirty jeans and a T-shirt, she’s standing on the corner under the El, staring into space, wobbling as if the ground’s shifting beneath her feet.
The first prostitute is arrested just minutes into the operation. By 10:30 p.m., seven women and a man wearing makeup are cuffed and sitting in the back of the wagon.
Most of the offenders, all white, look like they’re in their late 20s and 30s. None of them are tricks.
A girl slumps against the corner, eyes closed, nodding out.
The man, who goes by Angel, is furious.
“This is how I make a living. Not everybody has the easiest life,” he says. “Maybe we’re hurting ourselves, but we’re not hurting anybody else and this is really fucked up. Now I have a horrible record because I’ve had to be out here to survive for years … I was a college graduate. I’m far from an idiot.”
Angel says he has been out here since he was a teenager. “I had to take care of myself and my brother. And yes, drugs later on came to into play,” he says.
Angel says he was out working because he got robbed earlier that morning.
“I gotta bring money home for my brother to eat. But now I’m getting locked up and for what?” he asks.
The cycles seem endless and indeed, grind most into an early grave. According to Philadelphia’s Womens Death Review Team report, the average age of death for a prostitute is 38.
Not everyone can be saved. Project Dawn Court walks a tightrope between giving a disadvantaged person a fair shake and a criminal a free ride.
On court day, of the nine women scheduled to appear, only one other woman receives a certificate. Two women had been arrested since joining and five earned bench warrants by going AWOL—by either leaving the treatment facility or missing court. When they are picked up, they will be arrested and returned to prison to begin the program again.
In contrast to Kristen, the woman most likely to fail is 26-year-old Janelle, who after 11 convictions, was recently arrested again.
“What are you trying to do with your life?” asks Kirkland.
“Get better,” Janelle says. “I am !”
“You always tell me that,” says Kirkland.
Want to know how much sex with a teenager costs? Just ask Mimi. It cost her everything. Two years ago this month, I wrote a cover story that profiled the struggles of the 20-year-old from New Jersey who was two months into recovery after spending five grueling years in street-level prostitution, where the only so-called winners are pimps who earn big bucks off the backs of women and girls.