OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Video showing women who appear to be sex workers soliciting right outside a Catholic grade school in East Oakland is raising concerns about human trafficking in the area.
Parents and city officials tell the I-Team young women, some police believe may be trafficked, are walking outside St. Anthony's K-8 grade school off E. 15th Street in Oakland at all hours of the day.
Rosa Vargas sees it every day as she drops off her daughter.
"You have to be very alert in this neighborhood, as I told you, they've followed me a couple times," said Vargas, talking about known pimps in the area.
It was just before 3 p.m. on a Tuesday.
Vargas called the Oakland Police Department as she picked up her daughter from school requesting officers come by to check the area. Just outside her window, a young girl in black stilettos was seen walking across the street from the school.
"My daughter asked if I liked what the girl was wearing," said Vargas. "I told her don't turn around, don't look. It's not OK."
Vargas says the women are scantily dressed or in some cases, even naked.
The I-Team captured videos along E. 15th Street outside the school gate on four different dates over the past couple weeks showing young women wearing barely any clothing walking along the school sidewalk, the street corners, or directly across from the school. All of the videos were captured as children were being dropped off or walked into school.
But, one video captured on Monday - the start of Catholic school's week - represents the dichotomy of the problem. A mom was walking with her daughter across the street, as at least one woman appeared to be soliciting right in front of the school gate.
"Do you see this every day?" ABC7's Stephanie Sierra asked.
"It's every day, during all periods of the day," said Vargas.
"Are the women directly in front of the school gate?" Sierra asked.
"Yes," said Vargas. "Just last week they were blocking the entrance of the parking structure, where they were having basketball games."
Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo says the problem is getting so bad neighbors are calling him every week complaining they can't get into their home.
"I get the call saying -- 'Mr. Gallo I can't get into my home because the pimp is blocking my driveway,'" said Gallo. "It's constant."
On the street, it's a sad reality. We drove with Gallo along E. 15th.
Young girls are walking in the middle of the street, peaking into cars, and crowding the street corners.
"We've seen up to 20 women walking up and down this street," Gallo said. "Young, young girls."
"How young?" Sierra asked.
"I've seen some as young as 15, 16 years old," Gallo said.
The problem has plagued the surrounding area along International Boulevard for decades, but after recent construction along E. 12th Street the women have moved into residential neighborhoods.
"We don't want our students to witness the perils of human trafficking," said Rodney Pierre-Antoine, who oversees a network of seven Catholic elementary schools, including St. Anthony's.
St. Anthony's Parish has been part of the East Oakland community for more than 150 years.
Stephanie: "A safe sacred place... but the reality of what's happening beyond the gate is not. What is the school doing to address the problem?"
Pierre-Antoine: "We have to be advocate for justice, we have to stand against what's wrong, work in collaboration with our agency partners."
Stephanie: "Is OPD patrolling every day?"
Pierre-Antoine: ""We've made it a point in advocating that yes our school is incredibly safe during the school day and during the school hours... but we've requested police increase their presence."
Stephanie: "So, are they here every day?"
Pierre-Antoine: "...They're present."
We spoke with Father Ghebriel Woldai, the pastor for St. Anthony's parish.
"It's not enough," said Father Ghebriel, referring to the overall police presence. "They promised us they will do more presence here."
Father Ghebriel says St. Anthony's has had several meetings with the Oakland Police Department and city leaders over the years to enhance patrols in the area, but they need more help. He says the ongoing solicitation and trafficking has resulted in more shootings between pimps and gang members - even during the day.
"If there is a violent shooting, sometimes we experience those kinds, it scares me a lot," Father Ghebriel said. "We feel powerless... we just pray."
"But, Father, we know prayer alone, isn't going to solve the problem," Sierra said.
"Yes, I know... we start with prayer, but we have to end with action," Father said.
Action from police?
If you ask the Oakland Police Dept. - a new law is making it harder for them to crack down.
"Their hands are somewhat handcuffed," said Pierre-Antoine.
Previously, loitering with the intent to engage in prostitution was illegal. But SB 357, a bill introduced by State Sen. Scott Wiener repealed that law, in part because he found it to be disproportionately targeting transgender women.
"It allowed police officers to arrest a person, not based on what they did, but based solely on how a person looks," said Sen. Wiener. "So an officer could arrest someone because they were wearing tight clothing, high heels, and extra lipstick."
The new law that just went into effect Jan. 1 now prohibits officers from arresting individuals suspected of soliciting.
We met with Sen. Wiener to show him the situation along E. 15th Street.
"That footage is very troubling," he said. "We don't want sex work and solicitation happening by schools, it's not acceptable for the children and the neighbors."
Stephanie: "Police officers are saying your bill is prohibiting them from being able to rescue some of these women they believe to be human trafficked."
Sen. Wiener: "That is absolutely dead wrong. SB 357 has been in effect for 30 days, this problem has been around a lot longer. So I think it's a copout frankly for the police to say this law which is brand new is preventing them from doing anything."
Stephanie: "So what would you tell police who say their hands are tied?"
"First of all, police's hands are not tied," Sen. Wiener said, pointing to footage from E. 15th Street, where he argued police can and should arrest the pimps and "johns." "That car could've been cited, you can't stop a car in the middle of the street. If they have cause to think solicitation is happening, they can arrest for solicitation."
As for the situation on E. 15th Street, it's a dark problem, not hidden - but exposed in plain sight.
The problem officers are faced with is "cause" isn't justified by being undressed walking around the street, even if it's right in front of St. Anthony's - the Patron Saint of lost things, lost causes, lost people. Yet, this community is lost on a solution.
"It's terrible, it's terrible," Vargas said. "The easiest thing for me to do is pull my child out of the school, but that won't solve the problem."
Leaving families and the community praying for the city to take action.
"Every day is a risk just walking down the streets here," Vargas said.
The ABC7 News I-Team reached out to the Oakland Police Dept. several times for an interview over the past week and just received an emailed response Thursday morning.
"Some of the actions the Oakland Police Department (OPD) has in place; officers conduct high visibility patrolling; instead of enforcement actions. The hope is that the increased presence in different areas by these officers deter activity and does not revictimize those who are victims of human trafficking.
OPD also utilizes different programs such as the Dear John letter. These letters are formed from citizens reporting license plates in high crime and loitering areas in the city of Oakland. This letter is written to advise and not accuse the driver of participating in illegal activities, but informing the owner that the car was spotted in known prostitution areas."
Following this story, we're told a meeting with city officials is in the works to bring additional patrols to the area.
Next Tuesday, St. Anthony's Church is partnering with the Oakland Diocese to host a vigil prayer service to bring awareness to the problem and concerns about human trafficking along E. 15th Street.
Take a look at more stories by the ABC7 News I-Team.
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