In Sacramento California, police continue to raid and close massage parlours. These raids are devastating for the sex workers employed in the parlours who, when left without adequate income sources, often find themselves homeless. Kristen DiAngelo from SWOP Sacramento spoke to NSWP about what has happened to sex workers after these raids, along with how their lives have been further impacted by US federal agencies shuttering free advertising platforms such as MyRedbook and The Review Board.
In Sacramento, sex workers in massage parlor raids often face intersecting issues that marginalize them, such as no formal ID (therefore they are unable to access medical care, food stamps and welfare), precarious migration status and criminal charges stemming from sex work itself. In the United States, sex work is illegal, but various states have different laws that impact sex workers.
SWOP Sacramento has been making efforts to connect with the women who have been left homeless. Many sex workers who worked in locations that were raided have joined Hmong communities
who have developed strong and safe outdoor living areas. Hmong people are an ethnic group from the mountainous areas of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. As the website United Iu-Mien notes,
During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited the Iu-Mien people and other mountain tribesmen from Laos to support their effort to prevent the spread of communism. The Mien sacrificed a great deal due to the lost of many friends and family members. Great Mien war heroes and soldiers fought bravely on behalf of their homeland and the United States. After the Fall of Saigon, Communist took power of the mountain regions of Laos and US forces were forced to withdraw from Southeast Asia. Multitudes of Mien and Hmong fled the mountains of Laos to refugee camps in Thailand and Vietnam to escape communist rule and persecution.
From 1976-1979, the first wave of Mien families arrived in the United States. The second wave of resettlement began when the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program was instituted with the Refugee Act of 1980. The Mien resettled throughout the U.S. and other countries throughout the world.
This structured but unofficial group of Hmong migrants had been running an outdoor living community for four years and welcomed homeless sex workers into their space. Sex workers DiAngelo spoke with felt safe and respected in this community, which was patrolled at night by members on bikes.
Running water is not available but people find city spigots at night and bring it back to the camps in jugs. SWOP Sacramento first set out to provide food to sex workers but has ended up providing food for this larger Hmong community. DiAngelo states that in May, “we started with water, safe sex stuff, hygiene kits, wellness kits, which included shampoo, toothpaste, lotion, hairbrushes and socks.”
“We’d set up tables for hygiene, table for food supplies, four or five of us would do the work. We had to lug all this stuff in from the cars. Community members would come up and say ‘this woman is up in this tent and she’s hurt, can I take her food?’ So we started feeding all of them. I heard from women after woman, that they were safe. It pulled a lot of our resources off of the street but the need was imperative. It was life or death without water without food,” DiAngelo continued.
In mid summer, SWOP Sacramento found the safe community that had existed for four years destroyed. “The police broke it up in July of this year,” says diAngelo. “They came in one day and posted messages on all the lean-tos, where they had created a life for themselves with nothing.” At this time SWOP Sacramento took two of the women in the community out shopping for bedding and clothes because they had been locked out and everything had been destroyed.
SWOP Sacramento had been working to get sex workers IDs during this time but that initiative was postponed because the population, including the sex workers, had scattered after the community was destroyed. SWOP Sacramento faced an even greater challenge providing for sex workers who had been displaced after losing their income due to the massage parlour raids because now they were servicing them at informal camps, set up in fields.
While SWOP Sacramento is an organisation by and for sex workers, they also provide services to the broader Hmong community, since sex workers identified these people as providing community and security to them. They searched for sex workers under levies and other remote sheltered spots. “Now we’re going to all these places,” says DiAngelo, “but they’ve already been told they’re going to get their new houses destroyed again. I would not believe this was going on if I hadn’t seen it. We are talking about people living in fields. And because of the influx of people on the street the price point for services has dropped. The average back seat date used to be one hundred dollars and now it is twenty to forty. They don’t even have a place to shower so they can only make a very limited amount.”
DiAngelo said that SWOP Sacramento has been able to locate a dozen sex workers but cannot find many others and she fears that these women will “just disappear” if the police keep destroying their communities with bulldozers. “There’s nowhere for them to go,” she states, “they are working so hard just to keep it together.” DiAngelo says one of the most discouraging parts about the destruction of this latest community was that business cards handed out by authorities to people claiming to offer assistance included a phone number that turned out to be disconnected. “You take peoples homes you destroy their lives and you say ‘if you want help call this number’ and there’s nothing there.”