QUEENS, N.Y. (PIX11) – When Jalene Lugo started taking the No. 7 train from high school, the 14-year-old didn’t expect to encounter sex workers on virtually every block of the walk home near the Jackson Heights-Corona border.
“During school hours, they’re out,” the high school freshman said, strolling on Roosevelt Avenue with a Kirby doll attached to her bookbag, as she passed several provocatively dressed women in a doorway near 93rd Street. “They will be out with their pimps and they don’t care.”
PIX11 News traveled to the area three separate times in recent weeks and noticed an increase in sex workers during the daytime, going west from Junction Boulevard toward streets in the 90s and 80s on Roosevelt Avenue. At one site, a woman led men down a stairwell to an alleged basement brothel.
As darkness fell on a Friday evening, men steered customers toward establishments near 88th Street as a woman wearing a form-fitting red dress sat on a chair outside.
During the day, the women stand outside pharmacies, medical offices, cellphone stores and physical therapy centers, often wearing schoolgirl skirts, shorts, or tight dresses. Alleged sex workers were also seen sitting on mattresses outside a furniture store.
Massiel Lugo is Jalene’s mother, an activist who has led marches in the rain to protest the alleged brothels on Roosevelt Avenue.
“We understand that these women need money, but they shouldn’t be doing this during school,” Lugo said. “We are seeing more Latina women doing prostitution.”
The owner of a cellphone store said it affects their business because customers don’t want to go inside.
When PIX11 News asked Mayor Eric Adams about the Roosevelt Avenue situation during his Tuesday media availability, he acknowledged he had visited the area at 1:30 a.m. one day. He also offered to visit the neighborhood again with PIX11 News.
When asked if Venezuelan women — recent migrants to New York City — were now among those engaging in sex work along the avenue, Adams replied, “Our (NYPD) intell is telling us there’s a level of accuracy to that. And this is what happens when you create an atmosphere where people can’t provide for themselves.”
Adams told PIX11 News he’s against decriminalizing prostitution.
“There are real issues around illegal sex work,” Adams said. “Not only from STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) — sex trafficking, young girls getting involved in it.”
Adams said there are “elected officials who are fighting against us, trying to legalize sex work.”
State Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, who researched and investigated sex trafficking before she was elected to lead her Queens district, said the sex workers should be treated with compassion. She backs decriminalizing sex work if the circumstances are right and support programs are in place.
“Whatever way we choose to enforce the law, remember they are humans,” Cruz said. “They deserve dignity. They deserve protection.”
Yet Ramses Frias, an Elmhurst resident who grew up in the area, said the whole fabric of his community is changing.
“This has been turning into a red light district, similar to Bangkok,” Frias said. “It’s scary that there’s no moral compass anymore. Growing up, it’s never been perfect, but right now, it’s lawless.”