On The Street, Crack Abuse Divides Prostitutes

Posted: August 15, 1989

The pair of hookers worked the corner at Broad and Somerset Streets in North Philadelphia like the pros they are, flashing smiles and well-shaped mini-skirted legs.

During 20 minutes on a recent night, about a dozen cars pulled off Broad and onto Somerset. The two hookers would run over hoping for a "date." But they came back each time, cursing for a minute as the car pulled off.

The men were shopping around for lower prices.

"They keep saying they ain't paying that much," said one of the hookers, a stocky woman with long bleached-blond hair tumbling from under a green leather hat. "I tell them we ain't crack girls and they got to pay our price."

"Yeah," piped in the other prostitute. "We ain't out here to give it away."

The two veterans were feeling the effects of fierce new competitors in the twilight world of prostitution.

With the rise of crack has come a new and ever-growing crop of mostly young women who are so desperately strung out on the drug that they have turned to prostitution, selling their bodies at cut-rate prices in order to feed their habits.

On the streets, these novice prostitutes are known as "crack girls," or ''pipers," so called after the pipes they use to smoke crack. For $5 - sometimes less - they will perform almost any sexual act.

Five dollars is enough to buy a vial of crack, which gives a brief but powerful high. The inexpensiveness of the drug allows the pipers to undersell professional street prostitutes. And that has led to an uneasy coexistence between the two.

"I run those $5 tricks off the corner when I come out," said Linda, a longtime prostitute who said she had to cut her price because of the competition.

The vast majority of the new breed of crack-addicted prostitutes are in their teens or early 20s, authorities say.

Their numbers have led to a citywide increase in prostitution.

"They are everywhere. We've gotten complaints about these prostitutes from all kinds of neighborhoods," said police Lt. John Cerrone, commanding officer of the citywide vice enforcement unit.

The pipers prowl neighborhood streets, lurking at corners and in storefronts, unsavory in appearance, hair unkempt or tied under a scarf, eyes vacant, looking, in the words of one female police decoy: "Like zombies from Night of the Living Dead, like someone opened the crypt and they just crawled out."

"We see the stereotypical streetwalker dressed up in high heels less and less," said Cerrone, adding that the dirty, unkempt appearance of the women does not stop men from patronizing them.

"You would think to look at them that it would be a deterrent, but it's not," he said.

The presence of crack-addicted women on the streets has raised medical concerns about the further spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases

because these women often do not use condoms or take other precautions, as professional prostitutes often do.

"One girl told me she was not worried about AIDS because she only does it with clean men," said a caseworker in a local drug treatment center, disbelief ringing in her voice.

The caseworker spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to protect the confidentiality of her clients. In the last year or so, she has counseled many young girls who say they their need for the brief euphoric rush that comes with crack has driven them to the streets.

"They are heavily on crack, and all they think about is that they got to have that money," she said.

Drugs and prostitution have long gone hand in hand, but authorities say that crack, because it is cheap and easily available, has hooked a greater number of women who have few means of raising money.

The case worker said most of her clients had led normal lives until they were introduced to crack, which transformed their lives to nights and days of streetwalking, sex with strangers, and fights with women who practice prostitution for a living.

The crack-dependent women lower their prices in order to compete, she said.

"The going rate is $5, and one girl told me some have even gone as low as $2.50," said the case worker.

Moe, 27, of North Philadelphia, is one of those whose body has become the way to procure crack.

Last Wednesday night, she was turning tricks near Broad Street and Girard Avenue in North Philadelphia, long an area for working girls.

She was dressed in a pair of dirty black denims and a tank top. Her hair hung in strands around her face, which had not an ounce of makeup, not even lipstick to cover her chapped and discolored lips.

"I don't come out here every night, maybe once or twice a week," she said. "I don't need that much money; just enough to get what I need."

Moe said she began using crack last year, and prostituting herself six months ago when her boyfriend, who smoked crack regularly, left her. Her going rate for oral sex and acts other than intercourse is $5. Intercourse usually nets her $15, sometimes $10.

She does not consider herself a prostitute, saying she sells her services only occasionally and is on the streets just temporarily, until she can find a job.

"This isn't my life," she said.

Authorities say crack-addicted neophyte hookers like Moe face greater dangers because they work alone and don't know the ropes. Many of them are beaten up or robbed by customers and often are tricked into providing free sex for men posing as undercover police.

Police said these prostitutes are beginning to outnumber the professional street prostitutes and are spreading out beyond traditional areas of prostitution.

Historically, street prostitution in Philadelphia has gone on in Center City and in such nearby places as north along Broad Street from Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia; north along Broad from Girard Avenue in North Philadelphia, and under the El in Kensington.

But when crack-addicted women took to the streets, they began operating near their homes, doing business citywide from Southwest Philadelphia to Mount Airy to Frankford, police say.

In response, the Police Department, which previously allowed each police district to handle the problem in its area, centralized the operation and formed a special detail known as the Prostitution Control Squad in January 1988.

Since then, the squad has made 4,122 arrests citywide, which they say is far more than police arrested in previous years when arrests mostly took place in the Center City area.

Members of the squad describe women so controlled by crack that they spend four or five days in crack houses and emerge, when their money runs out, to service men, without having bathed or changed clothing.

Said a member of the squad: "When their brain tells them to get that crack, they go out to get it."

In some areas, the veteran streetwalkers in their abbreviated skirts, high heels and wigs, work one side of the street, while the poorly dressed, starvation-thin, crack-addicted women work the other side.

Such was the case Wednesday night on Broad near Somerset. While two seductively dressed prostitutes worked the east side of Broad, on the west side was Linda.

She stood just off the curb at Indiana Avenue, needle-scarred legs spread, shaking her body at passing cars. She wore a grimy velour top above a green polyester skirt cut to short length. Her hair was tied under a black scarf.

For 20 minutes, car after car passed, some occupants looking at her and laughing as they tooled by.

Linda, 26, says she smokes crack but is not addicted. She sniffs her nose at the crack-dependent neophyes who she said arrived on the streets over a year ago and began a price and turf war.

"When they told me them girls were selling it for $5, I just couldn't believe that those sisters were selling themselves that low," she said. "Now guys tell me, 'Why should I spend for you when I can pay $5 and get everything.' "

Linda, who has been a prostitute since she ran away from home at age 15, said she passes the $5 offers up. Her price: $10.

"I had to go down to $10 'cause those $5 crack tricks make all the guys try to" barter for lower prices, she said.

The two prostitutes on the east side made fun of Linda. "Look at her," the one in the green leather hat said as her companion in black and red laughed. "She looks dead, but she just won't go lay down somewhere and die."

The two prostitutes refused to give their names and claimed to be sisters. They would not talk about themselves, but they talked plenty about the "crack girls" who they say are so unattractive that they frighten potential johns away.

"Some of the men are scared to stop. Would you stop for something like that?" the one in the black and red said. "They will do anything for five

dollars because all they care about is the pipe. One girl told me she did it for three dollars. Three dollars! I told (her) that she was crazy."

They said the crack-addicted women were threatening their livelihood.

"I'm out working for me, not for the crack man. They need to get those girls off the streets," said the one in the black and red.

With the crack-driven prostitute has come new trade for crack dealers.

A young man selling crack Wednesday night at Broad and Girard said his location near the well-known prostitution area had led to a lucrative trade.

"I don't have to do nothing. I just sit right here and make my money," said the man, who called himself T.Y.

On a Friday or Saturday night, T.Y. said, he can make $800 to $900, ''sometimes more," selling crack exclusively to prostitutes.

"I saw one girl leave from over there with four guys in a car," he said, pointing to a nearby fast-food restaurant parking lot. "When she came back she only had $10."

comments powered by Disqus