An inside look at Houston’s prostitution problem
As a criminal justice reporter, I’d heard newsroom chatter for years about the bustling prostitution marketplace on the Bissonnet Track before I saw it. A city desk denizen told me if you took the well-known thoroughfare south and west of the city center, you’d find a place where cheap motels abound, where women roam the sidewalks and men in all kinds of cars pull off the highway to look for sex.
But seeing it for myself was another matter.
The impetus for this deep dive into the world of prostitution was the rare move by the state and Harris County to sue 86 suspected prostitutes, pimps and johns in the area, calling them nuisances. The government wanted a judge to fine them if they engaged in prostitution on the Track again.
PART 1: The open-air sex trade permeating daily life on the outskirts of Houston
I wanted to learn more about the residents and workers in the area and the people working the Track. Chronicle photographer Godofredo A. Vásquez and I jointly embarked on the project in August and reported on it throughout the next eight months.
The first few visits to the neighborhood startled us both. We’re both big city kids, we’ve both reported in an array of difficult settings, but the near-omnipresence of street hustling at night caught us by surprise. By day, we saw a more scattered presence along a several block circuit.
We walked the route many times, talking with business owners and residents, to parents in front of Best Elementary at morning dropoff. We watched a dozen men get arrested in two undercover stings with the city’s vice squad and toured the neighborhood with ex-prostitute and peer counselor Kathryn Griffin.
PART 2: Prostitutes struggle to escape the streets
I was stunned by the casual nature of the enterprise. It was clear what was going on in front of our eyes, not just to us but to people at work and pedestrians walking by, even to the children walking to and from school. The women, a few of them transgender, ranged in age from teenagers to their 50s. A few of the prostitutes were visibly pregnant; some appeared to be high. Others showed signs of distress.
It was also difficult to get women on the street to speak with us, in part, we guessed, because many had pimps circling in fancy cars nearby. But through multiple visits to Griffin’s support group we began to understand the lives of the women on Bissonnet. Talking about their pasts made them vulnerable. Some shed tears.
PART 3: The city cracks down while advocates fight the ‘nuisance’ law
I also got to know the lawyers involved in the county’s nuisance injunction case, which I explore in Part3. Celena Vinson, the lead counsel on the case for Harris County, says the lawsuit is a “tool of last resort” to address a problem that’s untenable for hairdressers, auto mechanics and others trying to go about their lives in the neighborhood.
But lawyers who represent trafficking victims have argued in court that blaming prostitutes is out of date, especially when so many people in the sex trade have been or will be trafficked.
It’s a complicated problem, and solving it is equally confounding. We wanted to take readers with us onto the Bissonnet Track.
Read the three-part series, The Track, at HoustonChronicle.com/thetrack.