Dozens of women involved in the sex trade have been able to get much needed services and some peace of mind, after a safe place opened for them on Milwaukee’s near south side nearly a year ago.
It’s a busy afternoon at the Sisters Program as women file into the converted home. About two dozen clients are packed into a tiny room. Some are sprawled out on couches watching TV, others are seated around a kitchen table eating peanut butter sandwiches.
“When women come in, this is the drop-in center, where they can just hang out and be comfortable. We have a full kitchen to be able to provide meals," Jeanne Geraci, executive director of the Benedict Center, says. The Benedict Center oversees the Sisters Program.
A sleeping area has been set up for the winter months, but the core services of the program are outreach, counseling and providing food and clothing.
One woman who says she’s “fallen in love” with the program is Shana. She just checked in for the day.
She’s been coming here every night, since this location opened its sleeping room, she says. “They help me get transportation to appointments, meals, a quiet room, a place to rest if you’re tired.”
Shana says she’s addicted to crack cocaine and is involved in the sex trade. But, before she became hooked, she was a registered nurse – and she believes the Sisters Program will help turn her life around. Shana says she’s starting to feel stronger, thanks to the many services the program provides, including helping obtain her driver’s license. She plans to start looking for jobs soon.
“The Sisters Program is helping me gain the stability that I need, I’ve developed a routine, I’m sleeping at night and I can get up in the morning and I can handle my appointments, interviews and whatever," she says.
Shana is one of nearly 200 women that the program has served on Orchard Street. Director Jeanne Geraci says it’s modeled after a program the Benedict Center established on the north side in 2011.
She says the second location was needed because prostitution on the south side is staggering. “On the near south side, the police district that we are in, District 2, has the highest number of prostitution arrests in the entire city. Our north side location is in District 3. Those two districts together make up 84 percent of all of the city’s prostitution-related arrests.”
Geraci says the center has been working with businesses and neighbors in the area to help reduce the number of people involved in the sex trade. She says this past summer, the center began a partnership with Milwaukee police, where officers refer women to the Sisters Program instead of arresting them.
So far, the police have referred about 60 women, she says. “Officers don’t want to keep arresting the same person over and over again and not see that problem resolved. So, the idea of taking women to a place where they could get the help that they need, I think that’s something that the officers embrace.”
Geraci says the Benedict Center is pleased with the results of the north side program, and has high hopes for the newer one.
But, south side resident Betty Grinker thinks a more direct approach yields the best results. She’s president of Operation Impact, a group that’s also trying to rid the south side of prostitution, particularly in the area of S. 23rd St. and W. Greenfield Ave.
Grinker’s organization raised $5,000 to hire a private security firm this past summer. Investigators canvassed the area, gathering information on the customers and the locations of drug houses.
She says these days, she’s seeing a lot less sex trafficking in the area. “I see nothing now, where before the sidewalks were lined with them, and it took a number of times when the police in force went out there and made a bust."
Grinker acknowledges that the Sisters Program has helped some women quit the sex trade, but insists a multi-pronged model is best.