Some 60 residents on Monday evening said over and over that prostitution on Shotwell has never been worse, and they made it clear to District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen and Mission Captain Gaetano Caltagirone that their official efforts have been too slow and ineffective.
“This is the worst it’s been — the density of prostitutes,” said 77-year-old David Brownell, who has lived on Shotwell between 20th and 21st for some 40 years.
Added David Hall, a co-owner of Shotwell’s Bar, which sits on the corner of 20th and Shotwell, “I don’t know what you guys are doing — I don’t know what you’re doing, Hillary. If this was your (campaign) promise to us as a community, you need to get your act together.”
By the end of the night, Ronen and Caltagirone vowed to redouble their efforts to abate the sex work that has long operated on Shotwell Street between 19th and 22nd. They were even receptive to almost unanimous support from the crowd to shut down certain parts of Shotwell and Capp streets on Friday and Saturday.
The officials explained that they have been working on slower, more humane fixes to the situation — such as sex worker outreach and criminal diversion. The residents, however, said the efforts had failed to abate a booming prostitution ring operating outside their doorsteps.
Some female residents said they were propositioned so frequently in the early morning that they had to change their commute schedules. “I can’t go out until 7 a.m.,” said Anjali McKie, who lives on 20th and Shotwell. “I will get followed every single time.”
Others told stories about ducking for cover with their children at the sound of gunshots on the street. “I’ve lost count and wondered whether it’s over, or if I should hustle my family into the bathtub,” said Ira Woodhead.
Ronen, looking horrified at the stories, acknowledged that she needed to “double down” on short-term efforts, such as speed bumps and a heightened police presence.
But she emphasized that in her year and a half as representative of the district, she has been laying the groundwork for programs that take aim at the root cause of the problem.
“It’s deep, systems-change work that doesn’t happen overnight,” she told the residents, who at times shouted over her.
The former aide to her predecessor, David Campos, — who received lashings from these same residents on the issue — said that she helped fund an outreach van that would offer resources to sex workers in the zone. It began its work four months ago, she said.
“That’s not enough time,” she said. “These aren’t simple things to solve if the first person you’re thinking of is the sex worker herself.”
Moreover, she said that simply heightening police presence on Shotwell or blocking off the streets will only drive the illicit business to surrounding streets. “And they (sex workers) will continue to be exploited,” she said.
As a shorter-term fix, however, Ronen said her office has been lobbying the police to increase traffic enforcement in the area, which would more target pimps and their customers.
Mission Captain Caltagirone, in his position for around six months, received perhaps his first real taste of the residents’ frustration with the prostitution issue that has faced previous captains. “I have never seen this many neighbor getting together around a particular issue,” he said.
The captain said that, as of a couple months ago, he has placed a prostitution-abatement team in the area that works through the night. Some are undercover officers who mainly focus on customers, but his officers have also channeled sex workers into a program that waives low-level prostitution charges and offers the workers social services.
Caltagirone said that, so far, his abatement team has been able to arrest four pimps, and his officers have also successfully sent two sex workers through the diversion program, called the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program.
“It’s a nice thing to see that something is going, but I know it’s not a quick fix,” he said.
In the end, however, he gingerly agreed with some residents’ suggestions to shut down hot-spot blocks — roughly on Shotwell and Capp between 19th and 22nd — on certain nights.
“What if we shut down the streets and do more DUI (checkpoints)?” he said to the crowd.
He was met with nearly universal applause.
Caltagirone warned that shutting down the streets would create logistical problems, such as having to constantly the check identification cards of residents. He did say, however, that he would work to increase DUI checkpoints right away. He also said that he would consider changing the foot beat officer routes to cover the area.
“I’m not going to make any blind promises that I’m going to clean this up in a month or two, but I think we need to move forward,” he said.
“It’s like squeezing a balloon,” said Brownell, the local resident, referring to the city’s efforts. “[They’re] not bursting it — they’re just moving the air around.”