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Houston settles with 16 topless clubs to focus on human trafficking

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Houston Mayor Annise Parker held a press conference in the rotunda of City Hall Nov 27, 2013 to announce a historic and unique settlement in a 16-year lawsuit against the 16 largest topless and adult entertainment clubs in the city. Under the agreement, the city will end its efforts to enforce its 1997 ordinance regulating sexually oriented businesses. (Code of Ordinances Chapter 28, Article III). The clubs will pay the City 1.6 million annually to a Human Trafficking Abatement Fund, which will be used to create and staff a human trafficking unit within the Houston Police Department.

In addition to the funds, the clubs will agree to

  • eliminate private rooms

  • refuse to employ a person who is accompanied by someone who speaks for her, holds her identification, and collects her pay “for safekeeping” or otherwise appears to exercise control, force, or coercion over the person.

  • Refuse to employ anyone convicted of prostitution within the past 60 months

  • refuse to hire anyone convicted of a drug offense

  • disallow any act of prostitution, public lewdness, or indecent exposure and certain other crimes involving narcotics

  • provide annual human trafficking awareness training and disseminate material regarding human trafficking awareness

The participating clubs will be allowed to resume topless entertainment and table dances. However, ordinances against public lewdness, prostitution, and indecent exposure and narcotics offenses will continue to be strictly enforced.

According to the Mayor's press release and her statements the agreement applies only to the 16 “grandfathered clubs.” However, in response to a journalist' question about other clubs not represented, City Attorney David Feldman stated that any club that agreed to abide by the terms of the agreement could be included.

Police Chief Charles McClelland explained how the new funds would be used to create new positions and concentrate human trafficking enforcement into a dedicated unit.

City Council Member Ellen Cohen, former CEO of the Houston Area Women's Center and a long-time advocate for victims of domestic violence, human trafficking and abuse, stated her own surprise at coming to an agreement with the sexually oriented business. She stated that she did not condone the businesses, but supported a step that would protect victims of human trafficking.

John Reston, attorney for the clubs, expressed appreciation for the tireless cooperative effort between City Attorney Dave Feldman's staff and his colleagues to end the litigation and join forces to fight human trafficking. He stated that it was the first time since the ordinance was enacted in 1997 that he did not have a case against the City of Houston. Quoting his father, “The thing about banging yourself on the head with a hammer is that it feels so good when you stop.”

Ann Chandler, President of the Tahirih Justice Center, which advocates on behalf of female victims of human trafficking and domestic violence needing immigration assistance, applauded the agreement as a step forward in ending human trafficking. “Let us stand together, and send a strong message to the criminals...we see you, and human trafficking will not be tolerated in Houston.”

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