Cleveland Avenue stretches from downtown Columbus northward. It’s the main road through Linden, a high crime, low-income neighborhood. The sun sets as Brenda Troy and Donna Hitcho from New Salem Church walk down the street, looking for sex workers.
“Now normally, this time in the day, there’s one usually right there. She’s not there today,” Troy says. “She’s usually standing by that stop sign right there. She’s not there today.”
“Or maybe she’s working already,” Hitcho says.
Troy and Hitcho are part of a project called “The Linden Model”–a partnership between Columbus Police’s Vice Unit, the City Attorney and New Salem Church that began in early 2016. It stemmed from residents' complaints that sex workers were being picked up by Vice, brought to jail, and then put back on the same street corner again.
The Linden Model interrupts that cycle by introducing women in sex work to resources aimed at getting them out.
“A lot of times the women don’t want to talk to the police, but they will talk to our team,” Troy says of New Salem’s Anti-Human Trafficking Ministry. “Our weakness is we can’t arrest anybody, although we would like to. The Vice team, they can do that, which assists in both parties making it a win-win.”
A program like the Linden Model needs all its partners in order to function. And right now, with one of those partners under an FBI investigation, the model is stuck on pause.
The Model In Practice
In 2017, there were five Linden Model stings on Cleveland Avenue, during which Vice picked up 34 women for solicitation. Instead of taking them straight to jail, officers brought the women to New Salem Church, where they could opt-in to a variety of resources.
If the women declined help, they went into the criminal justice system. But if they said yes, Troy and Hitcho’s group steered them toward HIV testing, counseling, detox and even shelter, before going into the system.
“I think our responsibility is to encourage them: 'There are other things that you could be doing, there is help available for you if you are willing to accept it,'” Troy says. “And I think for a long long time, these ladies didn’t even know that there are other options, and there are some people that really do care about you.”
City Attorney Zach Klein says the model helps women avoid jail time, as well as saves tax dollars.
"At some point, there’s just the frank realization that you can’t incarcerate your way out of this problem," Klein says. “You can arrest the hell out of people, they’re eventually going to keep coming back to the environment that they came from unless you provide them the opportunity, the hope and the resources to escape it.”
The Linden Model worked: The Vice Unit cut recidivism with little extra effort, New Salem offered their resources, and the City Attorney’s office shepherded some women into programs instead of jail.
The model spread: Versions sprung up last year on Parsons Avenue on the South Side and Sullivant Avenue in Franklinton. In Franklinton, organizers included survivors of human trafficking as peer supporters.
One of those peer supporters was Stephanie Rollins, a survivor herself.
“So many things happen to us and we’re so broken and everything, and it’s like, sometimes we just need that caring soft warm love to say, 'Hey, sister, ya know, I was there too. And I know what you’re going through and this is what I did to get out. Come with me,'” Rollins says.
She says a project like the Linden Model would have changed her life by interrupting the cycle of abuse, drug use and sex work.
“I was doing the same thing over and over again," Rollins says. "It was the insanity piece because I didn’t know anything else."
Despite the buy-in from community members and departments across the city, the Linden Model is on hiatus.
In September, the Vice Unit ceased nearly all operations indefinitely. The unit, which declined to comment for this story, is under investigation both by Columbus Police and by the FBI.
No Vice Unit means no Linden Model. And Troy says she's seen firsthand that no Linden Model means increased sex work.
“We have spent a lot of time and energy trying to decrease the activity in this area, so my concern is if Vice doesn’t return soon, it’s going to continue to grow and get out of control like it was prior to us working together in this area,” Troy says.
There are plans to expand the model to the Hilltop neighborhood in 2019 and to resume stings across the city, but until Vice is back up and running, the rest of the partners in the Linden Model will be lying in wait to get to work again.
Editor's Note: As of Friday afternoon, the Columbus Police Vice Unit has resumed limited operations not involving the Linden Model. An FBI investigation is still ongoing.