By Mike Kinney and Mike Aldax
Joleen opened by telling the packed crowd of neighbors and merchants in Veterans Memorial Hall on 23rd Street she was nervous about sharing her story.
“My mother begged me to take an airplane,” she said. “But I took a Greyhound.”
Joleen was 18 at the time. She was headed from San Diego, where she was raised, to Oakland, where she had family, and during a layover in Los Angeles a “Will Smith-looking guy” approached her, told her she was beautiful. He had the gift of gab – “I was in a trance,” Joleen said.
Next thing she knew, she was joining this stranger and his brother in Las Vegas, where she would experience “the fancy life” — nice cars, ringside at boxing matches. A fancy life that came with a price: selling her body.
Things went downhill from there. After seven years, her pimp was fatally shot, prompting Joleen to move to the Bay Area, where she joined myredbook.com, a since-shutdown adult website facilitating prostitution. Without protection, her experiences were harrowing.
Once, she was “locked in an apartment for three days, with a deadbolt doorknob, a $5 bucket to pee in, raped constantly,” she said.
Joleen’s bravery in telling her story before a large crowd of neighbors and merchants Wednesday served a purpose: to help a community plagued by the problem of human trafficking and prostitution to come together, share information, and to come up with solutions.
The forum at the Veterans Memorial Hall, which started at 7 p.m., brought together merchants, neighbors, community leaders, Richmond Police Department officials, including Chief Allwyn Brown, as well as victim advocates and members of the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office to have a broad discussion about prostitution and other crimes on 23rd Street, as well as possible solutions moving forward.
Organized by RPD, the forum took place following complaints by merchants and neighbors about a consistent, if not growing, prostitution problem. Federal law enforcement’s closing down of adult websites that facilitate prostitution has led to more young girls and women soliciting on the streets, according to one police officer.
“23rd Street has been a pretty big problem for us, it’s been an ongoing battle,” the officer said.
Wednesday’s panel included Richmond Capt. Al Walle, whose been vocal on social media about police strategies attempting to solve the problem, along with Deputy District Attorneys Jay Melaas and Simon O’Conald and police Sgts. Lopez and Stonebreaker.
Police officials explained they are stepping up enforcement in attempts to bust pimps and johns and to provide services for the prostitutes, who include minors. Hours before the forum, we reported about the bust of an “illegal enterprise” that led to the arrest of a pimp and his business manager. The bust involved a 17-year-old prostitute who was provided services and resources intended to get her out of the business. Often, girls picked up by police go to the West County Family Justice Center at 256 24th Street, a one-stop shop of services for abused women and children. During police operations, members of Community Violence Solutions come along to offer services, such as shelter, clothing, food and counseling.
But community leaders say police can’t be the only solution. While solutions such as security cameras on 23rd have been helpful, “we’re now on a different level,” said Rosa Lara, advisor to the board of the 23rd Street Merchants Association.
“We’ve come to the conclusion that a campaign needs to start – a stop human trafficking campaign,” Lara said. “We need to take back our street.”
The campaign will include having merchants post posters denouncing prostitution and crime at their businesses, and also an education campaign for those who lack the time to attend neighborhood meetings, Lara said.
O’Conald touted the power of a community raising a collective voice about an issue impacting their neighborhood.
“I think we need to begin by seeing that this is a social issue, not just a criminal issue,” the prosecutor said. “And when a community cares and can stand up and say I’ve had enough of this problem, it’s in my back yard, it’s affecting my children and our lives, we can start to make a productive change and get laws and judges and communities to care.”
Chief Brown’s shared a similar sentiment.
“Human trafficking, prostitution activity has been persistent along the 23rd Street corridor and it causes lots of harm, not just to the corridor but to the neighborhood’s adjoining it,” the chief said. “We really want to pull together all stakeholders in the community and really talk about this problem and figure out how we can redouble our efforts working collectively, and have some impact to reduce the harms caused by this.”