By Joe Gorman
In Youngstown, police Chief Robin Lees said prostitution is more traditional and confined mostly to two main South Side streets – Hillman Street and Oak Hill Avenue – that parallel Market Street.
At one time, Market Street was known for its prostitution, and Lees said as a young officer, it was not uncommon for vice-squad details to sometimes round up a dozen prostitutes an evening on Market.
Lees said lower Belmont Avenue near the intersection of Lincoln Avenue also was known for prostitution at one time, but the problem largely went away because the neighborhoods there changed, especially on Lincoln Avenue as Youngstown State University expanded.
Prostitutes in the city almost exclusively work alone, and they are motivated by their drug addictions, Lees said. In some cases, he said a woman might have a pimp, but not too often, and it is even rarer still for a pimp to have two or more women working for him.
“It’s not like it is on TV,” Lees said.
Lees said the department will arrest prostitutes when they are spotted. When police receive complaints, they will run undercover or sting operations to find and arrest them, which they did earlier this summer. He said it is a problem that while not overwhelming can grow if ignored.
“There’s an ebb and flow to it,” Lees said. “If we don’t check on it regularly, we get frequent complaints.”
On a recent Thursday morning, vice squad officers Jimmy Hughes Jr. and Chris Staley were doing just that, driving an unmarked car on Hillman, Oak Hill and the streets in between. They said the vice squad is usually out at least once a month running a detail exclusively for prostitutes.
“We want to hit it every month to keep it in check,” Hughes said.
The two gave the rudiments of what they look for when they are on prostitute patrol. Hughes said the women are easy to spot because they will pace up and down for long periods of time in the same one- or two-block radius, often in blighted, high-crime areas where hardly any homes stand.
“It’s behaviors that are consistent with prostitution,” Staley said.
Most of them live in the area, and several of them live together and they use a network of occupied and abandoned houses to elude police, the two officers said.
“They treat it like a game,” Hughes said.
The sometimes transparent nature of the detail became clear as they focused on two women who went around the block and seemed never to come back.
The pair drove for hours, watching the streets, and then were waiting in a parking lot on Oak Hill as one of the women who had walked around the block several times was doing so again. As they sat in the parking lot, a couple on the street next to them began to argue very loudly, and the officers were about to intervene as they were putting hands on each other when they went into a nearby home. They then pulled out and searched for the woman, but she was gone.
Hughes said it is typical for them to have their own areas they can get out of quickly in case they see police.
“They have territories,” Hughes said. “They don’t go too far from the house [they stay at] because if they see the cops they can run back.”
Another woman they were watching got in a car as the pair were stopping a man who was acting suspiciously so they could question him. They did not see that woman again, either. They ultimately let the man go after giving him a warning for walking in the street.
Lees said prostitution is a hard crime to stamp out because of the women’s need to get their fix for drugs, and they will do almost anything they can to get the money for it.
That is one reason why so many women arrested for prostitution have multiple arrests. Because penalties are not harsh – the charge is a misdemeanor – the women are frequently back on the street in no time.
“They’re not easily discouraged because of the need to feed the addiction,” Lees said.
Many times women will try other ways to get money for drugs but when they can’t, they return to prostitution because it worked for them once, and it can work for them again, Lees said.
One reason why prostitutes stay in the same area is that it’s well-known as a place for men who want to pay for sex. He said that by moving to another spot, they risk not getting any business because people will not know where to look for them.
“People who are going to patronize it have to know where to go,” Lees said. “You have to market yourself.”
Lees said the city has not seen the uptick in internet-related prostitution as have areas that have truck stops or hotels.
He said there is some of that activity in the city where women arrange for dates on the internet with men, but the men almost always end up getting robbed instead, Lees said.