A red van with cartoon decal is parked along the side of a road in the Hilltop. Several women gather outside the van, taking turns to approach for items like clothing and some donuts donated by a local bakery.
As women receive help, they go and grab their friends nearby and bring them to the van. For more than an hour, there’s a constant stream of people.
“I had a probation violation and because of my probation violation they took me to jail,” explains one woman, whose name WOSU is not using. “Because of them taking me to jail, and I was sitting in there for two and a half weeks. They only released me because of COVID-19.”
The woman has been out of jail for about a month. Now, she's is back on Sullivant Avenue working the streets. It's where the highest concentration of soliciting charges are logged in Columbus.
“It’s actually been a real life struggle because of the COVID-19 virus going around,” she says. “Everything isn’t easy, it’s way harder than it was before the COVID-19 virus been announced.”
The woman says it’s harder to get a john, a person who solicits sex, to stop – even they are leery of physical touch these days.
“We just hope and pray that somebody will stop and help,” she says.
More people are being released from jail during the coronavirus pandemic to promote social distancing behind bars. One local activist says an unintended consequence of that has been an increase in prostitution and sex trafficking in some parts of the city.
Esther Flores, a nurse, runs a local nonprofit called 1DivineLine2Health. She's expressing alarm at what she says is an increase in prostitution on the West Side.
“By the end of March 31, we saw 700 human trafficking victims,” Flores says. “At the end of last year, we had over 1,500 victims.”
That means they’re on pace for a nearly 100% increase from last year if trends continue.
Flores has been working on renovating an old veterinary clinic into a drop-in center on the West Side. Until then, she’s driving around in a donated vehicle she calls The Love Bug.
For years, Flores has been in the business of helping women. But because of how many people are being released from jail early during the pandemic, she recently decided to include men in her efforts, as well.
“We’ve been doing this for four years," Flores says. "It is kind of scary for us right now where we have men, because we usually don’t work with men, to come to us. I’m a little afraid about that, but I ask the girls if this is a safe guy.”
She’s quickly depleting her Narcan supplies. And while COVID-19 has spurred the jail releases, Flores says something else is impacting this population more.
“What we’re seeing is the MRSA,” Flores says.
MRSA is a bacteria that most often causes skin infections such as sores or abscesses.
“A lot of folks are injecting still," she says. "And people need to understand that social distancing, in this population, which is vulnerable, they also see it as social isolation.”
Enforcement of prostitution laws normally falls to the Columbus Police's PACT (Police And Community Together) team, which replaced the Vice Unit last year. But they're actually making fewer arrests, largely because the department has shifted their efforts since COVID-19 took hold.
“We took some of our attention off the street-level type interaction on a daily basis, which puts officers in very close contact with a lot of people," says Deputy Jennifer Knight, who runs the PACT program.
Knight says PACT is focusing on more long-term investigative work, such as shutting down brothels. She says it simply isn’t safe to have the officers doing the kind of work they were doing before.
“I think it’s frustrating for us, because we were having daily contact with individuals that were potentially street prostitution, were involved in street prostitution,” Knight says. “We were able to immediately arrest them. We were able to get them services.”
The unit made seven prostitution arrests in March and none in April. That's a far drop from the 58 arrests logged in January and 48 in February.
Knight acknowledges the pandemic could be responsible for the number of people engaging in prostitution.
“You know, there is the possibility that there’s some impact,” Knight says. “But I really think in this type of an environment, you have to be flexible and have to be willing to look at how you’re managing that problem.”
Knight hopes to get her officers back in the streets on a daily basis in June.