Amidst the controversy surrounding the decision to cut $1 billion in funding from the NYPD, one thing went virtually unnoticed when the City Council passed a budget last month: Some $4.1 million was dedicated to “support people involved in the sex trade,” according to a line buried in the press release.

New York City has been a hotbed of debate about the policing of sex work. While a growing number of progressive politicians have embraced the movement to completely decriminalize it, City Council speaker Corey Johnson has broken from the trend, arguing that clients of sex workers should be prosecuted. A closer look at how exactly the $4.1 million will be allocated reveals that it will go to organizations that are at odds with each other about how sex work should be policed.  Some agree that clients should be policed (Sanctuary for Families received $500,000 and Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, or GEMS, received $858,000) while others support full decriminalization. In the latter category, the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (AVP) received $100,000. VOCAL-NY, a 20-year-old grassroots organization serving low-income people affected by HIV/AIDS, mass incarceration, drug policy, and homelessness, received $100,000. The group spearheaded the Occupy City Hall protest leading up to the city budget vote last Tuesday. 

“It’s important that the City Council supports services from organizations like Vocal-NY and the Anti-Violence Project,” said Sebastian Kohn, program director of Open Society Foundations, which recently sponsored a  sex-work-themed art show and is a strong advocate for the full decriminalization of sex work around the globe. “But if they are really invested in improving sex workers’ lives, they also need to deal with structural policy issues like criminalization and over-policing.”

The majority of the funding, $3.8 million, will go to organizations that offer medical services, legal assistance, housing, emergency shelter, and case management to individuals involved in the sex trade. Besides the organizations mentioned above, these include Destination Tomorrow, HIAS, Inc., Safe Horizon, Inc., Health + Hospitals, and Community Health Project, Inc. An additional $365,000 is designated to supporting community outreach workers who connect sex workers to social services, according to the City Council’s office. 

“This funding will continue to provide critical services, including medical care, job training and emergency housing, for persons involved in the sex trade,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in an email. “They need these and other support services, and I am glad the City Council continues to be able to fund these nonprofits despite the dire economic situation we are facing.”

GEMS, a non-profit organization that empowers young women subject to sexual exploitation and trafficking mainly through housing assistance, got a full renewal of the financial support it started receiving from the city last year. More than 98 percent of their clients are people of color, aged 12 to 24, according to founder and director Rachel Lloyd. Thanks to the city funding, Lloyd said, GEMS was able to expand their client pool to include young women from the ages of 24 to 29.

“There is more need than ever in the last few months,” Lloyd said. She explained that young women who had exited the sex trade and obtained other employment felt forced to return to the industry, due to economic hardship they’re experiencing during the pandemic. GEMS has been providing cash, food packages, and other forms of assistance to them.

“I’m deeply worried about the impact of the economy right now on the folks that we serve,” Lloyd said. “Had they made cuts here, it would have been devastating. I’m thrilled that we’re able to continue to provide these services.”

Last year in May, following an event at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Johnson noted that he was making progress with a proposal to fund a service center for sex workers. Now, the city has allocated money to Sanctuary for Families and NYC Health + Hospitals (H+H), to fund the walk-in EMPOWER Center in Gouverneur hospital. The Center was launched earlier this year and provides holistic services to individuals in the sex trade. Sanctuary for Families and H+H received $500,000 and $700,000, respectively, to fill five full-time positions and recruit more health professionals to join the team.

Ane Mathieson, co-director of the EMPOWER Center, told Bedford + Bowery in an email that the Center aims to be a “one-stop shop” for people in the sex trade. Regardless of how an individual self-identifies, they can drop in and receive physical and mental health services, legal counseling, and economic empowerment training with translation services. 

Recognizing the complex backgrounds of people in the sex trade, Mathieson explained that the center’s goal is to make all services accessible and to “meet our clients wherever they are at,” meaning that “if they are still in the life and not ready to leave, then our goal is not to specifically counsel them to leave,” she wrote.

While a growing number of progressive politicians have embraced the movement to decriminalize sex work, Johnson has expressed support for the Nordic model, which does not prosecute sex workers but punishes those who procure sexual services. He also stands behind the effort to repeal the “Walking While Trans ban,” which prosecutes people for loitering for the purpose of prostitution. 

Johnson explained in May of last year that he believed the city should provide support for individuals involved in the sex trade, but there should be penalties for those who are looking to purchase sex. “If you do that you create demand, and you create a market where you could have more victims, more people exploited, more people trafficked,” he said.

NYC Open Data shows that in the past year, the NYPD made 591 prostitution-related arrests. Among them, 290 cases were patron arrests, while the rest were for conducting sex work, promoting business, and loitering for prostitution.

NYPD data shows that the number of prostitution-related arrests dropped from 2016 to 2019. But public outcry against the violent policing of sex workers exploded after a Chinese sex worker, Yang Song, fell to her death in Flushing, Queens during a police raid in 2017. At that time, NYPD police commissioner James O’Neill had pledged that the NYPD would no longer target sex workers for arrest. 

However, under the “loitering for the purpose of prostitution” bill, prostitution-related loitering arrests went up significantly in 2018, according to Documented. Advocacy groups like VOCAL-NY and AVP argue that the bill, deemed as “stop and frisk 2.0” by some, targets women of color, transgender women, and individuals who have been previously arrested for prostitution.

Johnson’s position on prosecuting clients was condemned by several advocacy groups, including DecrimNY, which has generated increasing momentum pushing for a decriminalization of sex work. In a joint statement responding to Johnson’s remark, DecrimNY, along with VOCAL-NY, Make the Road New York, AVP, and others, said that Johnson’s stance “will further marginalize the very same communities the service centers will benefit” and “lead to further housing instability, police surveillance and brutality.”

The group also pointed out that the Nordic model disproportionately impacts people of color, harms LGBTQ communities that engage in sex work due to employment discrmination and youth homelessness, and criminalizes sexual behavior in the LGBTQ communities even when it’s not sex work. 

Lloyd, who is a survivor of commercial sex exploitation and has worked in Germany on sex-trade issues believes that the city is making progress on providing services to sex workers. “The majority of people in the sex trade is having a lack of choice, feeling like this is their only choice,” she said. “Service is so that the individuals can have options other than the sex industry. Our job is to get them legitimate, real tangible options.”