A covert operation by ASU and Phoenix Police aimed at making an impact on street-level and online prostitution ended Friday.
The 48-hour operation, called Project Rose, brought 54 women through the doors of the Bethany Bible Church in central Phoenix with a life-changing decision to make.
Tami Hartman, senior program director of Catholic Charities, said women had the option of entering an intervention-style program, called Diversion, or facing felony prostitution charges.
“This is totally voluntary,” Hartman said. “They can choose to go to be booked right now, or they can choose the Diversion Program.”
During the two-day event, Phoenix Police officers brought women arrested for prostitution or un-licensed escorting to the church, where they had access to many free essential and social services designed to help them.
Hartman said the women had access to things such as free clothes, medical care and substance abuse help.
“We did a bra drive because a lot of the women coming in don’t have bras,” Hartman said. “Socks, underwear, (the) basics and then sweaters, because it’s so cool out now.”
Before the women could access the free social services, though, they had to talk business with the police and prosecutor.
“They meet with a prosecutor, who tells them what their legal rights are,” Hartman said. “Then they have them sign off on — that they understand their rights.”
Hartman said police take down the women’s information to keep a record of who has been caught, but the women can avoid being charged with a crime and potentially having a criminal record if they complete the Diversion Program.
The Diversion Program requires women to attend 10 group sessions and then a 36-hour class that is spread out over the course of a week. Some of the focuses during the program include helping the women find jobs and prepare for interviews, Hartman said.
“We do some job preparedness to try and give them options and resources for getting out of the life because one of the biggest barriers is not having employment,” Hartman said.
Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, professor with ASU’s School of Social Work, said women must be eligible to participate and can do so if they are willing and haven’t previously completed the program.
“If they have already completed the program … they are no longer eligible,” Roe-Sepowitz said.
If a woman chose to enter the Diversion Program, she was set up with an intake specialist and began the process immediately, Hartman said. The women would set up their first day at diversion, usually within one week.
Last week’s operation was the fifth time the biannual Project Rose has been undertaken, and it has had a strong involvement with ASU students from the School of Social Work each time.
Social work graduate student Jessica Smith has been a volunteer at all five Project Rose operations.
During the last operation, Smith said she worked to provide the women with safe transportation home after leaving the church, as well as transportation to their first meeting in the Diversion Program.
“I coordinated rides on vans or provided bus passes so that they could get back to wherever they needed to,” she said.
Smith said she’s seen a remarkable change in Project Rose since it began.
“What stands out to me the most is the commitment of the social service agencies that come and volunteer their time, and they come every event,” she said.
Roe-Sepowitz said regardless of whether women were eligible for the Diversion Program, all of them still had access to all the services offered during the operation.
Reem Constantine, with the Arizona League to End Regional Trafficking, helped provide services at the operation. There, she helped women discover and sign up for any benefits from the Department of Economic Security for which they’re eligible.
“I decided it would be a good idea to help women who are coming into the Project Rose to apply for DES benefits,” Constantine said. “These are benefits that they’re eligible for, because they’re either not working, or they’re working and it’s not enough, (or) they have a lot of children and they’re eligible for (Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System) benefits, food stamps and cash assistance.”
These women often forget to renew benefits, don’t realize they’re eligible for benefits or did not renew them because they move a lot and don’t receive expiration notifications, Constantine said.
Smith said it’s been a rewarding experience for her to be a part of Project Rose and see transformations in some of the women.
“I think this is a really amazing event, and I think it’s about treating people with dignity and respect,” Smith said. “Meeting them where they’re at and then empowering them with access to services.”
Smith said some of her graduate and undergraduate peers in the School of Social Work also came out to volunteer or see the event.
“We had some students come and take a tour, and then we had several students in the social work program come and volunteer for two-hour time slots,” Smith said. “To see those principles in action, I think brings a lot of meaning and value to what we learn in the classroom.”
Smith said the number of women taken into the Diversion Program was slightly down from previous years, but that overall it felt like the operation was successful.
“It’s a tough to reach population, and so … if we have one person come through the door, I think that’s a success,” Smith said.
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