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Last updated 10:36AM ET
August 13, 2020
WUSF 89.7 News
WUSF 89.7 News
'Johns School' Attacks Prostitution Demand Side
(WUSF) - It's an incongruous sight: A group of middle-class homeowners and their dogs pounding the dirty sidewalk in the dead of night. Their only accompaniment are cars streaming north from Ybor City's closing bar scene past prostitutes clad in very little.

The residents of once down-on-its-heels Southeast Seminole Heights took a liking to the old bungalow-style homes and its closeness to the city's amenities.

But that urban tableau embraces a closeness to the world's oldest profession. And many residents say that's too close for comfort.

The hookers plying their trade on street corners shaded from the sodium street lights include everything from drug addicts to transvestites. Brightly clad in skin-tight hot pink and orange, their dress leaves little to the imagination.

For several months, nearby residents have taken their concerns to the street. Fed up with prostitutes doing their business in their front yards and alleys, these homeowners want to get in their faces.

GARCIA: When we first started, we really felt like we were accomplishing something because there were prostitutes out here, they were actively working and we were actively chasing them off. As our group started getting more organized and we started getting police escort, the hookers started to die off.

That's Maria Garcia, who has lived in Southeast Seminole Heights for three and a half years. But when the residents aren't walking with their dogs, the street walkers come back out.

GARCIA: But then, when we started backing off on our walks, we were finding - you know, because most of us do go out on Friday nights and Saturday nights - and we come home late, you know, one, two, three o'clock in the morning, and then we're seeing, oh, here's a night that we're not walking, and we've got seven prostitutes over here, three over there.

They have some suggestions to curb the problem. Eliminate hourly rates for hotels that are known hooker haunts. Increase lighting on some dark street corners.

Scott Banghart is a relative newcomer to the area, having lived here for nine months. He didn't count on the streetwalkers plying its main thoroughfare. He has some ideas that might ease the problem.

BANGHART: If you're a prostitute, it would be treatment for domestic violence, substance abuse - both problems that tend to occur in the prostitute business. And if you're a john, then go to a john school. The judges need to be aware that yes, this is a problem, and that they need to treat this as a serious issue and not just blow it off.

Mr. Banghart says West Palm Beach may offer one solution.

There, a program was started last year that targets the customers, as well as the practitioners. Their "Johns School" gives those caught soliciting prostitutes the option of educating themselves about how destructive their actions can be.

Officer Jim Rohr has headed the program for nearly two years.

ROHR: We treat them as adults. There's no chastisement, we're not trying to embarrass them. We just talk straight talk to them about the dangers of picking up street prostitutes. Most of them, 99 or 98 percent of them, are drug addicted. And they just need the money for their next hit. So we let them in on that angle, plus the dangers of sexually-transmitted diseases.

Officer Rohr says a key to the program is it's targeted to a specific area where streetwalkers ply their trade. If johns are caught soliciting again in the same area, they can be sentenced to up to 60 days in jail for their original violation.

ROHR: If they complete all their requirements, go to school, get their HIV tests, not arrested, not caught in the area again, then that 60-day sentence is mitigated to time served and adjudication is withheld. So, they don't have a conviction on their record. So, it's a pretty big incentive for them to go ahead and go through the course and follow the plea agreement

Then, there's the flip side of West Palm Beach's effort. Street walkers are also offered treatment for their drug addiction. First-time offenders are counseled to see if they have drug, mental or family problems that forced them into the streets.

A local Johns School is being created by Tampa Crossroads, a private agency that helps people with a history of criminal offenses get back on their feet. But at a meeting of city and county leaders Friday night, many people said the only way that's going to become effective is if it is mandated by the courts. Jim Downum is administrator of court and community programs for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.

DOWNUM: The state attorney's office has discussed looking into such a program for johns who are brought through the county court system, so that we could provide education as to the hazards of such activity.

All of which would be good news to Buddy Williams, who helped organize the Nebraska Avenue walks.

WILLIAMS: We'll have to wait and see what happens and then, if nothing does, we'll have to take another step. I guess we'll keep reaching until we finally hit somebody who will actually go out and help us.

In the meantime, the residents of Southeast Seminole Heights promise to keep on walking.
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