The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently awarded Milwaukee County a $900,000 grant to battle opioid abuse and related issues, aimed at addressing the unique needs of women involved in street prostitution and sex trafficking.

The grant will extend the partnership Milwaukee County has with the Benedict Center, an interfaith nonprofit that works with victims, offenders and the community toward achieving dignity and respect for every individual in the criminal justice system.

“This grant will help us not only reduce a burden on the criminal justice system, but also empower women toward better lives,” Abele said. “Rather than focusing on their criminal behavior, this grant will enable us to address underlying issues of addiction and homelessness in connecting women with the resources they need. We’ll be able to provide them safe spaces, connect them with housing and foster their recovery.

The Benedict Center runs several programs geared toward women, including the Sisters Diversion Project, a street outreach, case management and skill building program for women in prostitution and sex trafficking.

“The strength of this project is each partner’s ability to bring its expertise and resources to recognize the humanity and meet the underlying needs of women in the sex trade who have substance use disorders,” said Jeanne Geraci, executive director of Benedict Center. “Rather than criminalizing women – which is expensive and proven ineffective – we can connect them with the housing, support and treatment they really need. They are part of our community and when they are healthier and safer, we are all healthier and safer.”

Awarded to the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Housing Division, the DOJ grant will support the creation of the Milwaukee Prostitution and Opioid Diversion Project (MPOD), which is designed to establish a public health and justice partnership to address the unique needs of women in street prostitution and sex trafficking who abuse opioids. Women in these circumstances come in frequent contact with the justice system; addressing basic needs such as access to housing and recovery services is aimed at reducing criminal activity, empowering recovery and fostering dignity.

“This grant will allow us to expand our Housing Navigation model to serve a population that has a tremendous housing need,” said Housing Administrator James Mathy. “Our continued focus on the Housing First model for this grant will enable us to give women access to permanent housing so they can then work on their addiction issues.”

The grant will support expansion of the Sisters Diversion Project, which builds on existing partnerships between the Milwaukee Police Department, Milwaukee County DHHS Behavioral Health Division, Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, local treatment agencies and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

“The Benedict Center is a leading community provider of services and advocacy for women in the sex trade. We know that real change cannot happen unless we have the right partners at the table. This grant affords Milwaukee County an opportunity to create real solutions related to the nexus of opioids and the sex trade,” added Geraci.