Sex workers and activists return from delivering a proposal to decriminalize sex work to the DC Council. Image by the author.

Sex workers face stigma, legal penalties, and police violence in the District, and one of the impacts is that many have trouble finding a place to live. Decriminalizing sex work won’t automatically create housing, but it will make it easier for sex workers to find and keep a home.

That’s one of the reasons why a coalition of DC sex workers and supporters are pushing a bill to reduce criminal penalties for consensually exchanging sex for money. The legislation would not legalize coerced prostitution or human trafficking, but rather would serve as a harm and criminalization reduction strategy to help DC’s community of sex workers make ends meet.

In June, advocates and four supporting councilmembers introduced the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019. Members of the Sex Workers Advocates Coalition (SWAC) and DECRIMNOW (which includes organizations like HIPS, No Justice No Pride, Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), and the Trans-Latinx Coalition, among others,) believe it will hugely benefit housing unstable sex workers, a large majority of whom are transgender women of color.

Tamika Spellman, Policy and Advocacy Associate at HIPS, is a 35-year veteran of the sex trade. Without permanent housing, Spellman has had to live in motels. “My income is not enough to be able to afford an apartment of my own. [The housing crisis in DC] is about affordability, not only homelessness. I’m paid above minimum wage and I am still housing insecure.”

Spellman sees this work becoming more treacherous, in part because online avenues like Backpage have been closed as a result of federal legislation called SESTA/FOSTA. Being able to find and screen clients online helped keep sex workers like her safe, and now Spellman sees an increase in violence due to more policing and a reliance on street-based work.

HIPS Policy and Advocacy Associate Tamika Spellman poses for a picture outside of the Wilson Building. Image by the author.

Even though she’s been shot, beaten, and endured abuse in her line of work, it allowed her to keep her family afloat. “As a transgender woman, I didn’t have another avenue for income,” Spellman said. “I use this money to put my kids through school. I’m not using it for all the nefarious things people perceive. I’m using this money to live.”

Alexa Rodriguez, a trans migrant from El Salvador, has also experienced homelessness and relied on sex work to survive, starting at age 12 in her home country. Today, she is working for Trans-Latinx Coalition, an advocacy group that helps trans Latinx immigrants in the US. Her undocumented status made it hard for her to find work and housing.

“I was sleeping in parks and I found support in older trans women,” Rodriguez says. “When I came to the US, I had to do sex work [again] because I was undocumented.”

Away from jails and towards housing

The importance of housing for sex workers goes beyond shelter, says Jordan DeLoach, a member of the DC chapter of the BYP100. “The focus on housing is trying to shift our understanding of safety, and invesment in police and carceral systems, toward providing people with resources,” DeLoach says.

It’s important to understand the District’s long and well-documented history of police violence toward sex workers and transgender people. In 2006, the city created Prostitution Free Zones where police had the power to arrest people they believed were gathered for the purpose of prostitution. Officers have demanded sex in exchange for not arresting them, and until 2014, DC police targeted and arrested sex workers for having more than three condoms on their person.

Sex worker Nila R. told Amnesty International in 2012, “The cop told me I could have three condoms and threw the others out, I had ten altogether. Also, an open condom is a charge. I’ve been locked up for it, the cops told me they were locking me up for an open condom.”

A 2008 report by the Alliance for Safe & Diverse DC says “the DC Council passed additional measures to further criminalize sex work, including legislation that provided the police and DC regulatory authority with new power to counter indoor sex work, impound vehicles used for prostitution, and prohibit the act of having sex for money. (Previously, the law had criminalized only solicitation of sex for money.) This legislation resulted in police raids and arrests for things like ‘giving a massage without a license.’

According to a Metro Police report, there were 227 arrests for prostitution in 2017. DC has the highest volume of gentrification in the country, adding to the reliance of police in urban areas, which in turn contributes to the violence trans sex workers face. Being locked up means a criminal record, which makes it even harder to get and keep a job and a house.

Under the The Fair Criminal Record Screening for Housing Act of 2016, it is illegal for landlords to look into an applicant’s criminal record before they offer them conditional housing. However, a housing provider can deny an application after the offer is made if the applicant has been convicted of a crime within seven years of the date of application. They can also inquire into their financial, credit, and employment background before offering housing.

Since sex work is so highly stigmatized and illegal, finding another form of employment and housing is difficult. The Urban Institute found that people with a criminal record have a hard time finding employment, especially if the applicant is black or brown. DC’s 2014 “Ban the box” legislation prohibits employers from inquiring about a person’s criminal record on their application, but that restriction only applies to businesses that employ 11 or more people.

Layers of discrimination leave some trans people with few choices

Being trans adds another layer of difficulty to landing a job. A DC government report found that “48% of employers appeared to prefer at least one less-qualified applicant perceived as cisgender over a more-qualified applicant perceived as transgender.”

Trans people also experience high levels of housing discrimination. The US Transgender Survey found that “24% of respondents experienced some form of housing discrimination in the past year, such as being evicted from their home or denied a home or apartment because of being transgender, 21% have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives,” and, “11% experienced homelessness in the past year because of being transgender.”

Supporter Katherine O’Connor stands with the trans pride flag at the Stonewall 50 Action and Rally. Image by the author.

“When you are a trans person, and a trans person of color, and a trans person of color who’s been arrested for engaging in sex work to survive, then the housing discrimination you experience is even greater,” said Alicia Sanchez Gill, interim Executive Director of CASS.

Because trans people experience such a high level of discrimination, many choose sex work as employment, and some trade sex work for housing. Sex work becomes the only option for many people who can’t find a job, a home, and have experienced a myriad of systemic barriers throughout their life. Add to that the criminalization of sex work, and you have a formula that keeps people shackled to the margins of society without access to basic resources like medical and mental healthcare, housing, and employment.

In the margins, people are more likely to be sexually and physically abused. As we recently saw with the recent killing of Zoe Spears and Ashanti Carmon, they’re also more likely to be murdered.

Solutions for safer sex workers

When the Sex Workers Advocates Coalition introduced the decriminalization bill, they partnered with the Way Home campaign to influence policy around ending homelessness in the District. The campaign asks Mayor Muriel Bowser to invest “$32 million in housing solutions for 1,620 individuals and $9.7 million for 309 families.”

Part of the solution to ending chronic homelessness is investing in permanent supportive housing, temporary affordable housing, and rapid-rehousing. The group hopes to solve chronic homelessness by using the Housing First model, which provides permanent housing rather than temporary services like shelters.

Advocacy and direct action organizations like No Justice No Pride also provide trans sex workers who are experiencing homelessness with support in a group home and through fundraising. The NJNP Collective currently provides nine individuals with longterm housing, and they also help housing insecure people by fundraising for rent support online.

NJNP Organizing Director Emmelia Talarico speaks to the crowd at the Stonewall 50 Action and Rally for DecrimNow. Image by the author.

Emmelia Talarico, Organizing Director at NJNP, says, “We work within our existing networks to connect folks with housing specialists, case managers. Oftentimes we work with trans folks who have aged out of services and are less trusting of city resources, or housing vouchers, and we work with them to figure out a long term situation whether here at the collective or with a friend in the movement.”

A Sex Worker Giving Circle provides rent relief to sex workers who need it, Tamika Spellman says, and HIPS hopes to implement a housing program in the coming months.

The hurdles are many, but that doesn’t mean local sex workers are giving up the fight. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots led by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two trans and housing unstable sex workers, they delivered their decriminization proposal to the DC Council. The trans pride flag flew high.

Spellman was among those who walked from the Wilson Building across Pennsylvania Avenue to participate in the anniversary commemoration, which raged blocks from the White House. Trap and reggaeton beats blasted proudly while thunder teased rain.

“Today is the beginning of the end of criminalization for sex workers,” Spellman declared. “Freedom of body, mind, and soul will be had in the District of Columbia.”

This article is part of the GGWash Urbanist Journalism Fellowship, made possible in part by the Meyer Foundation.