DEENEY: On The Kensington Strangler BEAST: The rusting, blue steel frame of the El, the elevated portion of Philadelphia’s subway, looms over dilapidated Kensington Avenue like a giant centipede’s decaying exoskeleton. Known as “the stroll,” Kensington Avenue is the hub of Philly’s street prostitution scene, where young, drug-addicted women turn tricks for dope money—and where lately, a serial killer stalks them in the sickly orange glow of the streetlamps under the El. […] The two murdered women are alleged by the prostitutes on the stroll who knew them to have met the same fate in similar ways, by having gone on what the girls call “walking dates.” In such a transaction, a John approaches on foot instead of in a car and asks the girl to walk with him to a nearby lot to set a price and have sex. The expansive lot where Elaine Goldberg was strangled is comprised of waist-high weeds with a path cut through them. Following the path into the weeds from the sidewalk feels like disappearing into a Dantean wilderness of addiction-driven depravity. The path is strewn with discarded women’s clothes, a toilet turned on its side, and ultimately, a clearing where the muddy ground is coated with empty 1CC syringe wrappers, dirty needles, empty dope bags, used condoms, and a filthy mattress in the dirt where the women turn tricks. The nearby lot where Nicole Piacentini was strangled is smaller but similarly nightmarish. Set across from a warehouse loading dock, yellow crime tape was still tangled in the weeds where a second path opened immediately into yet another clearing strewn with drug detritus. As I approached the scene, a police officer who was sitting in a cruiser still parked by the crime scene rolled down his window. “There’s a lot of human shit back there so watch where you step,” he deadpanned. “It ain’t mud.” MORE


EDITORIAL: End ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Under The El JEFF DEENEY Today I am a social worker who serves drug offenders in the criminal justice system, but nearly seven years ago I landed in a local detox seeking treatment for for my own debilitating drug problem.  It was the middle of January and Philly was at the peak of winter bleakness.  It was bitter cold out and the roads were still crusted white with dried road salt from the last big snow storm.  As I was processed by the intake department a woman came through the hospital-style swinging doors right behind me.  She was obviously coming right off the streets.  She was severely under dressed, wearing only jeans and a thin denim jacket over a t-shirt.  I remember how as the room’s warmth began to penetrate her she began shaking so hard all over it looked like she was convulsing.  She was high as a kite; her eyes were wild and her speech was loud and erratic.  She just wanted meds, she was so sick, she pleaded desperately.  I remember thinking that my life looked a lot less fucked up right then than it had just moments before.

Over the next few days she got a little better.  In the detox day room where the bored and still half-dopesick young South Philly and Kenz boys who comprised the majority of the unit’s population sat playing spades all day, she started to talk about her life as a prostitute.  She had worked the Avenue under the El for years, and had a big dope and crack habit.  She talked about how the drugs continually tore her away from her kids, and how she hated herself for letting drugs do that to her.  But I was most impacted by the stories she told about the sexual violence that was rampant on the Avenue.

“Just a few weeks ago a van pulled up and this dude asked for a date.  I jumped in to work out the price but when I did somebody hit me in the head from behind and the van sped off.  When I came to we were parked somewhere I didn’t recognize and there were four men in the back of the van holding me down.  They took turns raping me, then they dumped me back on the Avenue and disappeared.”

She said she didn’t bother reporting it to the police because all the girls down the way know the cops don’t give a shit.  She told of innumerable incidents of rapes, brutal gang rapes, and beatings that women she knew who worked the stroll had suffered.  A lot of them reported the incidents, but mostly nothing ever came of it.  You’re just a hooker, she said, was the attitude the girls get at the police department.  You’re out there asking for it.  You’re not worth the time and resources it would take for us to track all these guys down.  You don’t want to get raped?  Don’t prostitute on the Avenue.  I remember thinking, naively, that it couldn’t be possible that the city let sport rapists run rampant through Kensington like Clockwork Orange droogs.

That was seven years ago.  I can’t even speculate at the number of sexual assaults on prostitutes that have gone without prosecution since then.  But what’s truly alarming is the unwavering consistency in the testimonies of the roughly 10 prostitutes I talked to for the Daily Beast Kensington Strangler story with that of the prostitute I met 7 years ago.  Every single one of them reported being raped multiple times, having reported a rape or other violent assault to the police at least once, and upon revealing to police the fact that they were prostitutes being told that no action would be taken.  These reported histories of incredibly profound sexual trauma have also borne themselves out in my social work case files of women seeking treatment, time and time again.

I know that “trend reporting” is something journalists need to be wary of, because the temptation is to see a trend when one doesn’t exist because it makes for a stronger story.  I am always skeptical of trend stories.  But, there is a trend here.  It is long established and totally consistent across time.  Sexual violence against prostitutes in Philadelphia is practically legal.  It is openly condoned by a police department that takes a moralistic stance towards women who sell their bodies for drug money, and feel these women more or less deserve what they get for doing what they do.

I know that recently there have been some progressive programs started that are geared towards prostitution in Philadelphia.  I know about the new Project Dawn Court that attempts to steer prostitutes into drug treatment after they are arrested.  I support problem solving courts like the Dawn court in more than just concept.  I work for a similar initiative, and have for the past two years.  I put in my forty hours every week busting my ass to help drug offenders in the system turn their lives around.  More specifically, in my time as a social worker I have helped 3 drug addicted prostitutes exit the Kensington Avenue life; one eventually relapsed on crack and disappeared, but the other two are still recovering both from addiction and long trauma histories.  So I know there’s some good news to report, because I have taken part directly with the programs that are doing the work.  But it’s not enough.

Tuesday night I stood at the Huntingdon El stop and wondered why an outreach program couldn’t set up shop in a mobile unit right there on the corner.  The El stop is well lit and heavily trafficked, a place where the women who work the Avenue clearly feel is safe to congregate.  In a half hour I was able to meet, sit and talk with five different women.  Why can’t an official safe zone be established here?  Why couldn’t public health workers have an outpost for distributing condoms and clean needles, right here, right out in the open after dark?  Legal Aid attorneys could drop in to do domestic violence consultations.  Mental health professionals could schedule intake appointments with women who want treatment.  Homeless services could connect women with housing so they’re not sleeping in abandoned buildings.  And, most importantly, a woman police liaison could take reports of assaults from the women, and take them seriously.

For those who don’t work in the field, this type of musing is a sort of hell that progressive poverty fighters across America are condemned to.  Why can’t we have these good things?  Other countries can, why not us?  But, we can’t have good things.  We can’t have good things because historically a majority of us prefer systems that are punitively based and ruin lives at a greater long term financial and human cost to society, rather than rational policies that reduce harm, and increase the potential to stop cycles of human despair and debilitation from forming in the first place.

Let me say this, and let me say it bluntly, because I feel that using clinical terminology or high flown rhetoric doesn’t serve to deliver the message as strongly as I feel it needs to be delivered after having worked with and written about so many women who have been completely destroyed by the sexual violence they suffered as prostitutes.  The city of Philadelphia’s moralistic approach to prostitution that essentially condones sexual violence as a reasonable outcome for a fallen woman to suffer is total fucking bullshit. Better approaches to dealing with prostitution shouldn’t require a serial killer bringing a national spotlight on it in order to have real action after years of status quo.  Knowing well how things work around here, I’m not sure even that will have much impact.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is currently working on a book about life in the crossfire of poverty, drugs, guns, and the bureaucracies designed to remedy them, all of which informed his experiences as social workers in some of the city’s most dire and depleted neighborhoods.

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