Police, shelter workers and advocates work to piece together a month long pattern of violence
By Rebecca Robinson
On a recent Friday afternoon at Sisters of the Road Café on Northwest Davis Street, women shared their stories of sexual assault and domestic violence. One woman, who asked not to be identified by name, said that her 14-year-old daughter was recently gang-raped at a party by three teenage boys who attend her school.
“No one is immune,” the woman said, her forceful voice a stark contrast to the tears flowing down her cheeks. “It’s not a prostitute problem; it’s not a homeless problem; it’s not even just a woman problem.”
In downtown Portland, a recent set of incidents has brought the problem into stark relief for women on the streets.
Portland police, homeless shelter workers, and women’s crisis advocates are working to piece together a month-long pattern of violent sexual assaults by multiple male attackers on young homeless women. But the police are struggling to conduct an investigation because the victims, many of them sex workers, fear that going to the police may lead to their arrest for other unlawful activities.
A former sex worker known as Jasmine contacted Street Roots last month, saying, “I have a story that needs to be told.” It was a story that, for some on the streets, was all too familiar.
Jasmine said one of her friends was approached on the evening of March 6 at the corner of Northwest 18th Avenue and Everett Street by a trio of men who asked her to come with them. When she refused, the men hit her on the head, knocking her unconscious. When she awoke, she was blindfolded and traveling in a vehicle with the men, who took her to several different locations on both sides of the river. The woman was gang raped, sodomized, and forced to smoke crack over a period of nearly 10 hours before she was dropped off semi-clothed in front of the Julia West House at 522 SW 13th Ave., Jasmine said.
“She’s reverted back to a childlike state,” said Jasmine of her friend. “They completely controlled her, were calling her ‘little sister.’ If she looked at them, they said ‘you need to be punished.’
“I’ve seen the bruises on her body,” Jasmine added. “I know it’s for real.”
So do outreach workers at downtown shelters for the homeless and women fleeing domestic violence. They say multiple similar assaults have taken place near the Salvation Army Female Emergency Shelter (SAFES) in the past few weeks, and multiple women have been taken from the area around the Fred Meyer on West Burnside Street and 20th Avenue.
“Our ladies have been talking about it a lot,” said Shannon Singleton, coordinator of SAFES on Northwest 5th Avenue. “One of our case managers spoke to a woman who had been assaulted in a similar manner, and at our women’s safety group a couple women said they had heard about or been a victim of this kind of assault.”
The Portland Bad Date Line, a hotline where sex workers can anonymously report dangerous encounters, has recently fielded several calls from women detailing assaults similar to those experienced by Jasmine’s friend and others.
A new alert posted on the Bad Date Line sheet distributed to shelters and agencies citywide reads: “Multiple reports of three black men, possibly white van, abducting, forcing to smoke crack, blindfolding and raping workers and homeless women downtown/NW/Burnside (between 10th and 20th) area.”
Sister Cathy Boerboom with Rose Haven, a drop-in resource center for women, said she has attempted to speak to the survivors and their friends about the assaults. However, she found that “the women were so traumatized when I asked them about it, they didn’t want to give specifics,” making it very difficult to establish concrete facts about the suspects, their vehicle, and other details of the crimes.
Sergeant Michael Geiger with the Police Bureau’s Sexual Assault Division (SAD) said that this lack of specifics, combined with women’s fear of coming forward, was making it extremely difficult to investigate the crimes.
“There may be multiple victims who are using non-reporting sources” — that is, telling friends or social workers who don’t report information to the police — “so it’s a little hard for us to get a handle on this,” said Geiger. “Also, there is some hesitancy and fear among women, especially a fear that we wouldn’t believe them, and, if the women are also sex workers, a fear that coming forward would get them arrested for prostitution.”
Geiger says this fear is unfounded.
“If somebody came into our office and sat down with us, I can tell you they’re not going to be arrested,” said Geiger. “We understand that what they were engaging in would be unlawful activity, however, our role here is investigating sexual assault, so we’d be figuring out how to charge the suspects.”
Monique Monroe, a victim support specialist with SAD, said that a detective had been assigned to investigate the assaults and was working with other staffers at the Sexual Assault Detail to collect tips relating to the crimes. That detective did not return multiple phone calls seeking information about the case.
“We’ve staffed it on our end,” said Monroe, who could not disclose whether she’d spoken to any of the assault victims. “We see this as a legitimate concern, and we’re doing everything we can.”
Though fears are heightened among homeless women, and will continue to be until the suspects are apprehended, service providers stress that resources and safe havens for women are available and easy to access – at least for now.
* * *
The assaults come at a time when $6.7 million in one-time funding for the Bureau of Housing and Community Development (BHCD) – which contracts with numerous agencies and nonprofits to provide services to Portland’s homeless and transitional residents – is on the chopping block due to the city’s significantly reduced tax revenue. Should none of the funds be approved by the city, BHCD’s total budget for fiscal year 2009-2010 will be reduced by over 15 percent, and numerous programs and services will cease to exist.
Those who staff the city’s numerous shelters, crisis lines and other social service agencies are deeply concerned about how budget cuts, when combined with the recession, would impact their ability to aid Portland’s most vulnerable populations, particularly at a time when the need is greater than it’s been in years.
“It’s scary right now,” said Ledena Mattox, a women’s outreach specialist at Transition Projects, Inc. (TPI) “The (Portland Women’s) Crisis Line (PWCL) is in jeopardy of losing some positions, another shelter is laying off people … we’re worried.”
Crystal Tenty, who does sex worker outreach for PWCL, conducted street outreach on April 3 with Mattox from TPI.
“We were letting women know about these potentially dangerous guys, giving out bad date sheets so they knew what to look for.
“But I won’t have time to do street outreach,” Tenty added, and funding cuts will put further stress on her time and resources.
Beth Kaye, the BHCD’s public affairs manager, acknowledged that much is at stake in the budget process, but was confident that city commissioners would at least partially renew the one-time funds.
“I am feeling guardedly optimistic,” said Kaye. “We have Commissioner (Nick) Fish at the table negotiating for us; he’s a true believer in this stuff.” Fish oversees the BHCD.
“That said,” Kaye continued, “I know that our community partners in general … cannot absorb large cuts, and … if we do have to make cuts, we will sit down at a table with partners and strategize to make the cuts in a way that will allow organizations to continue to survive.”
There are also unanswered questions as to how much money will funnel down to BHCD from the federal stimulus package approved in February, and how those funds can be used.
“We’re still trying to figure out how to access all the funds,” said Kaye. “There are about 57 different chutes (federal) money can go through. One of the big questions is how many stimulus dollars can be used to add capacity and to backfill, or replace one-time funding that doesn’t exist because tax revenues are down.”
BHCD is requesting $244,333 from the city for SAFES, which was paid for last year by one-time funds.
“I’m not feeling more or less anxiety than I did last year,” said Singleton. “We’ve got some great advocates with the Salvation Army who’ve made us their top priority, and the city values programs for women.”
Private funding sources are also drying up.
“We have new people coming in every day, and we’re getting calls from across the state saying, ‘help us,’” said Boerboom of Rose Haven. But foundations and individual donors who have lost money in the recession can’t give as much, meaning Rose Haven can provide fewer resources for those in need.
“Donations are less now,” Boerboom admitted. “We had a couple that’s been giving us a check every month for the past three years, but I haven’t heard from them in five months.”
* * *
The financial meltdown and its highly localized effects are coinciding with increased violence and desperation on the streets.
Singleton said that while the number of women served by SAFES hasn’t increased dramatically, but “We’re seeing new faces, and … when we see an economic downturn, we tend to see an increase in assault.”
“Violence is definitely up,” said Boerboom. “Women are being beaten and robbed more often. But people are desperate. We’re having a lot of people come here that had been stable for seven, eight, nine years, and now they’ve lost their jobs.”
Esther Nelson, the volunteer coordinator for the Sexual Assault Resource Center, said their hotline has seen an increase in calls about violence, though she added that sexual assault of homeless women “happens often enough that we can’t say it’s on the rise.”
Similarly, Singleton said, “Some of our ladies are repeatedly victimized and won’t share that information because they consider it their norm.”
But providers encourage assault survivors to seek out the resources available to them through social services.
“If anything like this happens to you, there are advocates out there we can connect you to who will go with you to the ER or the police,” Nelson said.
At least one recently assaulted woman – Jasmine’s friend – has filed a police report and had a rape kit done, giving police vital DNA evidence necessary for further investigation. Geiger and Monroe were unaware of any other woman who had done the same.
“One of the questions women have had is, has there been any police activity on this?” said Singleton. She hopes to have a police officer come to the SAFES shelter and encourage women to file formal police reports if they are assaulted.
“When (shelter staff) say that, it’s been ‘yeah, yeah, yeah,’” said Singleton, “but if women heard it from a police officer, I think that would make a huge difference.”
If the recent cases are connected, Sargeant Geiger said, even reports with few details can aid in finding the attackers.
“Sometimes a police report establishes a baseline of behavior and a record,” said Geiger, adding that occasionally a string of “weak” cases – similar crimes with scant physical evidence or eyewitness testimony – can be tried in court as one.
Jasmine has been in touch with Monroe at the police’s Sexual Assault Division. She hopes to bring in her friend to speak with Monroe, both to give the police more first-hand information and to help the woman begin to heal.
“Before, looking at her was like looking at a hurt child,” said Jasmine. “But now, she does want to talk.”
If you have any information regarding these assaults, please contact the Portland Police Bureau’s Detective Division at (503) 823-0400. Anonymous calls are accepted.
Scary and eye opening. Every commuter are persons working in urban enviroment should have some form of self protection. Telescopic batons are effective an easily concealed until needed.
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