Though the shops along Sullivant Ave. have all closed their doors for the night, a young woman walks alone down the alley behind the Seventh Day Adventist Church. She’s petite and wears lipstick, a tweed coat and blue jeans torn at the knee.
WOSU agreed not to use her name—the woman feared retribution from her drug dealer. When I ask what brought her out here, her response is direct:
She says she’s 30 and struggled with addiction for three years. She even managed to get clean and stay sober at one point, but that only lasted a year.
“[Then] I lost my job about a month ago,” she says. “Then one thing led to another.”
She says she relapsed and wound up here. Now her days consist of walking up and down Sullivant looking for “dates.” She earns anywhere between $150 to $300 a day, and uses that money to get by.
“To feed my addiction, to eat, to sometimes find a place to sleep,” she says.
Prostitution is not new to the city of Columbus, but according to data from Columbus Police, it's increasing: In each of the past two years, the number of prostitution-related arrests has increased by 30 percent.
No neighborhood sees more of this activity than the Hilltop, and both local advocates and law enforcement agree it's being fueled by the opioid epidemic. Despite the flurry of attention to fighting the crisis around Central Ohio, when it comes to prostitution, local policies haven't adjusted to stop the cycle.
Working In The Trenches
As she's done multiple times a week for the last year, Sister Nadine Buchanan of the Dominican Sisters of Peace drives up and down Sullivant Ave., her car filled with sack lunches.
“I'm looking for ladies to give lunches to,” she explains.
The lunches she prepares typically contain a sandwich, fruit and something sweet, “to help with the dope sickness.” Sister Nadine also includes information for local shelters and addiction treatment centers.
At 67, Sister Nadine is not your typical advocate for victims of human trafficking. While handing the women their lunches, she peppers them with questions about their safety and health. She calls everyone "honey.” Some women will even sit in the car with her for a heavy-hearted conversation.
In the last year, she's managed to help one woman—that she knows of—get off the streets. But these women live such transient lives—often they're victims of violence, incarceration and fatal overdoses—that she rarely sees the same one twice.
Sister Nadine says she's learned to spot these women by their walk—the way they wander without any particular place to go. Or how they wait at bus stops, but never board any buses. Or how thin these women all seem to be.
“They really are very very hungry,” Sister Nadine says. “It's nothing to find someone who is a size zero.”
The women Sister Nadine serves lunches to, as well as several women I interviewed for this story, all say they regularly go days without food or sleep. They live in houses that are either abandoned or run by drug dealers; they carry everything they own in their purses.
At all hours of the day, regardless of the season, they’re out on the avenue, working.
For Sister Nadine, helping them is as gratifying as it is challenging.
“Sometimes when I come home and I just need to be quiet," she says. "And I say I have been to hell today, and it's the truth."
The Perfect Tool For Control
Michelle Hannan, director of the anti-human trafficking effort at Salvation Army, says even 10 years ago, the majority of sex workers in Columbus struggled with heroin addiction. Today, law enforcement and advocates agree it impacts 100 percent.
“It's become something that was a part of the equation, to really the entire equation as it relates to sex trafficking,” Hannan says.
According to the Polaris Project—a national anti-human trafficking hotline—since 2015 they’ve received nearly 2,000 calls from human trafficking victims who report opioid addiction. Of those, two-thirds say they became addicted prior to working in prostitution.
It's the same case for many of the women I spoke with in the Hilltop. According to law enforcement, much of the prostitution in this neighborhood is not connected to a larger trafficking network. Rather, many women are working for themselves. A smaller number may have been coerced into prostitution by a trafficker.
Ultimately, all of the women are bound to sex work by their addiction. If they stop, Hannah says, they lose access to their drug supply and face the horrors of withdrawals.
"What we see is that that process is so physically painful and difficult that [heroin addiction] really creates this perfect tool for control," Hannan says.
The Cost Of Prostitution
When it comes to deterring buyers of sex, often referred to as johns, Hannan thinks local policies could and should be stronger.
In Ohio, a first-time offense of soliciting a prostitute (who is 18 or older) is considered a third-degree misdemeanor, an offense that carries a maximum sentence of 60 days in jail and a fine of up to $500. The charges in Franklin County, where most cases are charged, are more serious: soliciting an adult is a first-degree misdemeanor, with up to $1,000 in fines and 180 days in jail.
Advocates, legal experts and law enforcement report that johns rarely receive the maximum punishment. Most are able to plea their charges down to a fine of around $150 and no jail time.
Lt. Ron Kemmerling of the Vice Section with Columbus Police, said that the stings used to catch johns require at least eight to 10 officers. For the department, this means catching a john outweighs the cost of their prosecution.
Columbus is unique, though, because it has what's called a "john school." People caught soliciting a prostitute have the option to attend this eight-hour course, where they learn about the harm and risks associated with human trafficking. In exchange for attending john school, the charges against solicitors may be dropped entirely.
While the program has been proven effective in deterring repeat offenders, Hannan argues that heavier penalties for first-time offenders might discourage this behavior from happening in first place.
“There are other communities across the U.S. where the penalty is much higher, like $800 or a $1,000, and that would really start to make an impact on someone,” Hannan says.
In San Francisco, perpetrators are required to attend john school and pay a $1,000 fine, a portion of which goes towards supporting programs for victims of human trafficking.
"We Have A Disease"
On Sullivant Ave, sex workers have told me they felt stuck. One I spoke to told me she’s been beaten and raped by customers; she’s aware this work exposes her to HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases.
But stopping is just as terrifying.
“I can't handle withdrawing,” she says. “I just wish people would understand we didn’t choose to wake up one day and be a heroin addict. We have a disease.”
For many women like her, this is the end of the road. Few people manage to find a way home.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the age of the anonymous woman. She is 30, not 28. The story also misstated the penalties for solicitation under Franklin County and Ohio law. The story has been updated to reflect those changes. (Jan. 9, 2018)