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A dozen miles from downtown Houston, cars inch down an industrial side street and drivers idle by a cluster of young women bathed in streetlight, brokering primal transactions. A middle-aged woman in stilettos and a tight-fitting shirt stretched down to her thighs crosses a feeder road on a weekday morning, flicking her tongue suggestively at commuters stopped at the light. A few blocks away, tenants tell the building manager they've seen strangers having sex outside their doorways, in their complex's laundry room and inside Range Rovers in the gated parking lot.
A kindergartner and first grader wonder aloud on their walk to school about the ladies standing around with their privates showing. These scenes might raise eyebrows in sprawling suburbs and well-heeled city districts, but they are ordinary and unremarkable to shopkeepers and apartment dwellers in this urban patch on the southwest outskirts of the city.
It's known to prostitutes, cops and johns as the Bissonnet Track. The neighborhood has earned an international reputation in recent decades for the street trafficking that permeates everyday life. Arrests have made barely a dent in the criminal activity. Now, local officials have taken the radical step of asking a judge to declare several blocks off-limits to more than 80 people accused of engaging in prostitution — labeling them nuisances to the community and threatening fines if they return.
The mayor and police chief trumpeted the rare ban last August, and residents and business owners cheered the county's calls for an "anti-prostitution zone" around a triangle framed by U. The requested civil injunction, they say, will help shut down the sex trade on the Bissonnet Track. But as a legal challenge plays out in court, criticism has mounted. Anti-trafficking organizations say the civil suit against alleged prostitutes, pimps and johns could harm victims of the sex trade. Civil liberties advocates say it violates fundamental rights without addressing the problems.
Lawyers for the accused call it misguided and punitive — targeting people for selling themselves but ignoring the circumstances that led them to sex work. Kathryn Griffin, center, of the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable's office, leads a support group for ex-prostitutes and sex-trafficking victims at a mansion in Houston. Griffin, 59, calls herself an "ex-ho" and says it took her 22 rehabs to shake her crack addiction. For those working the streets, it's known as "the game": the life and livelihood of the sex trade, the rules of survival.