MILWAUKEE — In 2019, Rhonda Reid, a housing navigator for the Milwaukee County Housing Division, received a referral to help a chronically homeless woman who had also been involved in the street-based sex trade.
The woman, in poor health and struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues, wanted to turn her life around.
"Housing was her starting point," Reid said.
She's been housed for a year now, Reid said, has improved her physical and mental health and worked on her substance abuse issues. And she just went on a job interview.
That type of progress is what a group of local organizations envisioned when they created Milwaukee Providing Opportunity for Wellness, Empowerment and Recovery, or MPOWER. The project seeks to help women involved in the sex trade obtain stable housing, treatment and long-term recovery support. The goal is to reduce an overreliance on emergency health care, arrests and overdose deaths, while helping these women turn their lives around.
The nonprofit news outlet Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.
According to Jeanne Geraci, executive director of the Benedict Center, one of the organizations leading the project, homelessness is a major obstacle to recovery.
"Before we started this work, there was limited awareness of the homelessness of women we work with," Geraci said.
Not having access to housing, she said, prevents women in the sex trade from gaining the stability and safety they need to address other issues such as extreme physical and emotional trauma and drug addiction.
"It's not fair to ask women to change if she doesn't have the resources," Geraci said.
The need to provide stable housing to help women escape the sex trade was never more evident than when the pandemic struck. The Benedict Center operates the Sisters Program, which provides services during street outreach or at two drop-in centers, one located on the North Side and one on the South Side. Unfortunately, once the pandemic hit, the drop-in centers closed, leaving the hundreds of women served annually with no safe place to go.
"The drop-in center was providing fundamental basic needs to women who are homeless — food and a place to rest for women who haven't had a place to sleep," Geraci said. Losing use of the centers also made it more challenging to connect the women with much-needed services such as treatment for opioid addictions. (The drop-in centers are reopened now on a limited basis, providing some relief.)
In addition, a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice allowed the Benedict Center and the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services' Housing Division to expand their partnership with other groups, including the Southside Organizing Center, the Milwaukee Police Department, the District Attorney's Office and the Medical College of Wisconsin to create MPOWER.
Eric Collins-Dyke, assistant administrator in Milwaukee County's Housing Division, said the project aligns with the county's "housing first" philosophy. That philosophy centers on providing housing to those who are most vulnerable, along with direct services such as treatment to address chronic homelessness.
Reid said the women she helps through MPOWER are perpetually in survival mode.
"Lack of housing has led to them ending up in very dangerous situations," Reid said. "They are unsafe in the community and now unable to get away from a certain lifestyle that they are used to."
So far, 47 women have received housing navigation services since July 2019, including 12 who were placed in a safe-haven-style house and 11 who have been placed in permanent housing, Geraci said. In addition, since July, 18 women have been placed in hotels where they are able to receive services through the Sisters Program.
Assistant District Attorney Ann Lopez, who works in the Community Prosecution Unit for MPD's District 2, said an outside-the-box approach is needed to tackle the issue of prostitution, a major concern for the residents she serves. District 2 is located on the South Side, which has prostitution hubs along West Greenfield Avenue, West National Avenue and West Lincoln Avenue, according to Lopez.
Although residents appreciate seeing arrests of johns or prostitutes, she said police alone can't solve the problem.
"Jails do not have the capacity to provide the resources to help them change their lives," Lopez said.
She believes the MPOWER model provides a more effective intervention to help women get off the streets.
"You're investing in them and helping to teach them how to live their life independently and obtain the housing, counseling or treatment services they need," Lopez said. "Instead of arrest and prosecution, we are trying to work collaboratively and find some real interventions."
Tammy Rivera, executive director of the Southside Organizing Center, agrees.
"Historically, arrests for prostitution have been disproportionate towards women and not the men who are solicitors," she said.
Those arrests do not address the root problems these women face, such as the trauma they have from being abused and addiction struggles, she said. Rivera's organization and several of the other organizations involved in MPOWER have been working to address these issues for several years.
She said adding the housing component, especially during the pandemic, became necessary during this stage of that partnership. Her organization's role is to help create and develop a community engagement plan to support the project.
"When people understand it better, they have more empathy," Rivera said. "The goal is to understand and tackle the root causes and assist the women to be safer and healthier as residents of the community."