In an ongoing campaign that targets street-level sex workers, Ottawa police have been conducting prostitution sweeps for two consecutive weeks, arresting a total of 46 people: 24 women and 21 men.
The latest undercover operation took place on Nov 14 and 15 in Centretown, Vanier and Carlington. During this operation — the second of the two sweeps — police arrested 34 people: 17 women and 17 men.
The 17 women arrested were charged with prostitution-related offences, mischief and breach of conditions. Of the 17 men arrested, eight were charged with prostitution and drug offences and nine were released on pre-charge diversion. A total of 63 criminal charges were laid.
The latest roundup came hot on the heels of a prostitution sweep conducted in Lowertown and Vanier on Nov 4 and 5 where 12 arrests were made, a total of seven women and four men.
In the recent attempt to disrupt street-level prostitution, most of the women were arrested on solicitation charges, although some were arrested for breach of conditions — a re-occurring indictment that is related to previous prostitution convictions.
“Usually they are arrested for soliciting,” says Frank D’Aoust of Ottawa Police Services. “Once we find out their name, we verify them, and we find out [if] they are breaching conditions such as curfews, failing to keep the peace, failing to remain out of a specific boundary.”
In the last two sweeps, eight men were charged with prostitution-related offences. The rest of the men qualified for John school, a pre-charge diversion program that requires the defendant to admit their offence, have no past criminal record or any current charges filed against them. After attending John school, they are free to go.
Most women are initially arrested on prostitution-related charges and first-time offenders have the option of attending a post-charge intervention program.
Bryonie Baxter is the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa, a group that advocates for women in prison. She says that women are initially picked up on communicating charges but are detained afterwards, often repeatedly, for breaching conditions.
“Ottawa has one of the highest breach charges in the province of Ontario,” says Baxter. “They are returned to court and because they are breaching court conditions and they are sent to the detention centre on those breach conditions.”
Those women often spend time at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.
“The Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre is built to hold 42 women,” says Baxter, “and typically, almost always, holds more than the capacity — and has been as high, in the summer months, as 70 women.”
Frédérique Chabot, the Women’s Outreach Coordinator of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, agrees that the jails are too crowded to cope with the continuing influx of women but also states that the overcrowding leads to resources being taken away.
“The rooms for programming are used for sleeping, and so there is no programming that could support these women’s re-entry into society,” says Chabot.
When the women are released, it is usually with boundary conditions called “red zoning” which prohibit women from frequenting certain areas. These often include areas where the women can access services like child-care, rehabilitation programs and in some cases, shelter.
“You can’t go to agencies,” says Chabot. “All the agencies are in the red zones. So if you are caught in those sweeps, you are red zoned, you get charged, you get probation and for a year you are not allowed to go to the Shepard to sleep, you are not allowed to go to the food bank — you are not allowed to go anywhere.”
The raids do nothing address the underlying issues that drives people to street-level sex work, especially poverty.
“Women work the streets because of poverty,” says Baxter. “So unless the core issues of poverty and addiction … are addressed, women will return to the work they are able to do and know how to do, which is working the streets.”
Targeting street-level prostitutes is the stated goal of several community associations. Both the Hintonburg and Vanier community associations have a mandate to clear street-level sex workers from the area.
Vanier, the only community to be targeted in both of the two recent sweeps has an active community association called Together for Vanier. It has a drug and prostitution committee and, on its website, advises community members to report suspected prostitutes and johns to the police.