Helping women in street prostitution find hope & lead safer, healthier lives
click here for information on our Warming Room
The goal of the Sisters Program is to create a citywide policy to provide a public health based approach to help women in street prostitution and sex trafficking instead of criminalizing them.
When the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) can divert women to the Sisters Program instead of a ticket, fine or incarceration, women have the opportunity to change their lives and the lives of their family/children, and avoid future incarceration, fines or other judgments made by the criminal justice system.
The Sisters Program helps over 400 women per year in street prostitution, including sex trafficking. It provides a harm reduction approach that includes street outreach and two drop in centers where women can begin their healing journey.
At the drop in centers, women can safely rest and receive crisis management, counseling, advocacy and assistance connecting to housing and other critical resources. Sisters participants engage in on-going peer support, and give input on program design.
Some women are trafficked into the sex trade through force or manipulation by a family member, partner or someone who offered to help. Other women trade sex due to circumstances including poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and drug addiction.
Women in street prostitution face high rates of victimization:
- Sex trafficking
- Physical assault
- Sexual assault including rape
The revolving cycle of prostitution, arrests, jail, and release does not solve the problem in the long-term because it does not address the underlying needs of the women. It is also resource-intensive and costly to tax payers.
Research indicates that in three years (2013 – 2015), 704 women were arrested in Milwaukee 1292 times – and 83% of those arrests occurred in Milwaukee Police District 2 (MPD-2) and Milwaukee Police District 3 (MPD-3).
When the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) can divert women to the Sisters Program instead of arresting them, women have the opportunity to change their lives. Our goal is to create a citywide policy to provide a public health based approach to help women in street prostitution and sex trafficking instead of criminalizing them.
The Sisters Program provides a place where women can begin a journey towards a healthier, safer life. The program recognizes that change is a process and not an immediate transformation. We meet women where they are and walk with them for the long-term.
We offer street outreach and two drop-in centers that provide crisis support, continued relationships to connect women with resources to access needed services, support groups, food, clothing, personal hygiene items, and a safe place to rest.
The Medical College of Wisconsin is an important partner. They help us evaluate our program results:
We operated a pilot diversion program on the north side from 2012 to 2014.
• 71% of women who accepted the police diversion completed the requirements and stayed engaged in the program
• 21% of women were able to leave the streets for one month or more
• Street Outreach Workers connected with 404 women a total of 2,074 times
• 131 women individual women were served 2,747 times in the Drop-In Center
Sisters Program Service Model
Change does not happen overnight. We meet women where they are and take steps together to help her in her journey.
- Street Outreach Workers talk to women on the streets multiple times to foster relationships and build trust. They offer respect, care packages and an invitation to the Sisters Program Drop In Centers.
- Police have the option to divert women to the Sisters Program instead of incarceration as well.
Drop In Center:
- Crisis Management, Safety Plans, Respite (safe place to sleep)
- Case Management and Wrap Around Services through Collaborations (ie: housing)
- Educational and Support Groups
- Warming Room (open 24 hours during November - March)
Sisters Leaders help make program decisions, advocate for system changes and share their perspective with decision makers, neighborhood groups and the community.
Community Engagement is Essential:
Key to this project is the support and involvement of a multidisciplinary team of residents, businesses, faith leaders, local government, and community organizations.
- Medical College of Wisconsin
- Milwaukee Police Department
- Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office
- Milwaukee County Housing Division
- Sisters Program South Collaborators
An interfaith collaboration formed to create and sustain a Sisters Program- South to support this work. The collaborators include the School Sisters of St. Francis, Ascension Lutheran Church, Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, Sinsinawa Dominicans, and Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis.
With considerable energy, time and dedication, the collaboration has raised sufficient funding to begin the drop in center and street outreach. At the same time, the collaboration is actively building partnerships with the City, County, CBO’s and other service providers to leverage and connect comprehensive services to women in need while building safer neighborhoods.
Significant funders of this program include the Zilber Foundation, Impact100, Siebert Lutheran Foundation, Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Sisters of St. Joseph of The Third Order of St. Francis, House of Hospitality, United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County, and the Catholic Community Foundation.
Benedict Center Sisters Program – South
Program Need: The Benedict Center’s Sisters Program Warming Center provides emergency overnight shelter during winter months (December to March) for homeless women who are engaged in the street sex trade due to coercion, sex trafficking or survival due to homelessness, poverty or substance use. Women in the sex trade are an overlooked and underserved population who face extremely high rates of sexual assault, sexual exploitation, and victimization on the streets.
While most women express a desire to exit the sex trade, their journey out is not an easy one. Women in the Sisters Program tell us that homelessness is a primary barrier to exiting the sex trade and that they frequently “take dates” to avoid sleeping on the streets. With assistance from the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Benedict Center conducted a study and found that 50% of women were either literally homeless, precariously housed, or at imminent risk of literal homelessness. Unfortunately, housing resources for women with substance use disorders and no income are limited at best, and the stigma of working in the sex trade further prevents women from accessing those resources. As Milwaukee earns the FBI rank of being a “hub” of sex trafficking and is in the midst of the opioid epidemic, women in the street based sex trade are an underserved and marginalized population that require a targeted focus to increase their safety and improve their health and well-being.
The Sisters Program Warming Center: In 2017, the Benedict Center opened a Warming Center at our Sisters Program Southside Drop In Center during winter months to address the gap in emergency shelter resources for women in the sex trade, including women who are fleeing sex traffickers. The Warming Center is located inside Hope House at 209 W. Orchard Street. This ideal location includes showers, a dedicated sleeping area with comfortable beds, and a small kitchen. The Warming Center has the capacity to serve 8 women/night, 7 days per week. When paired with our daytime Drop-In Center, we offer 24-hour shelter during winter months. While located on the south side, beds are available for women anywhere in the city. A Sisters Program Van (funded by Impact 100 Milwaukee) transports women to our services. IMPACT 2-1-1 completes a shelter and housing assessment on every woman served assist them in finding shelter or more permanent housing. All women are encouraged to participate in our Drop In Center services that include crisis stabilization, counseling, case management, and support groups. In 2018, the Warming Center provided 41 unduplicated women with 405 nights of shelter.
Community Partners: The Warming Center would not be possible without the Sisters Program South Collaborative, comprised of seven interfaith organizations who joined together in 2016 to expand the Sisters Program. The Collaborative remains one of the Sisters Program’s most steadfast partners, supporting program development, fundraising, and volunteering onsite. We have also been fortunate to gain support from the Southside Organizing Center, Clarke Square Neighborhood Association, Washington Park Partners and other neighborhood groups who have grown to view the Sisters Program as a trusted program and positive influence in their neighborhoods. The Benedict Center is also leading community efforts to increase access to safe housing for women in the sex trade. Current partners include Impact 2-1-1, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Continuum of Care (shelter and housing providers), the Milwaukee County Housing Division, Meta House, Pathfinders, Sojourner and the MPD and District Attorney’s Office.
Impact of the Program: To fully understand the impact of the Sisters Program’s Warming Center on the women we serve, we would like to share the story of “Cassie.” We have changed her name to protect her confidentiality. Cassie, age 19, was escorted by the Milwaukee Police Department District 2 to the Sisters Warming Center for emergency shelter and support after she had been a victim of a robbery while engaging in the street sex trade. Originally from a Kansas, Cassie had been lured to Wisconsin while she was a minor by a man that she met online. Although she was quiet and unwilling to share her exact circumstances, as pieces of her story emerged, Warming Center staff suspected that she was a victim of sex trafficking. Over the next several weeks, staff worked to build rapport with Cassie, and she eventually shared that she had left her parents in Kansas and not had any contact with them since arriving in Milwaukee. Staff encouraged her to reconnect with her family, and when she did, her parents told her they were worried sick about her and wanted her to return home. Unfortunately, her family did not have the resources to purchase a plane ticket for her return. Benedict Center staff looked into flights and then bus tickets and arranged for Cassie to return home, free of charge, through the “Home Free” program sponsored by Greyhound bus company that provides runaway and trafficked youth with free transportation to ensure they return home to a safe place. When staff followed up with her to make sure she was successfully reunited with her parents, she told us that she was warmly welcomed home. Cassie’s safe return home would not have been possible without our donors generous support.