'Like shooting fish in a barrel': 15 men arrested in 12 hours for buying sex on street, police say

In about 12 hours, 15 men, age 19 to 62, were arrested in Winnipeg for purchasing sex on the street.

Police and outreach workers team up for Project Return to help at-risk youth

Winnipeg police say they arrested 15 men in about 12 hours for purchasing sex on the street. (CBC)

Fifteen men — age 19 to 62 — were arrested for purchasing sex on the street in Winnipeg over the weekend.

The police counter exploitation and missing persons units teamed up with outreach workers from different community organizations for Project Return.

The twice-a-year effort brings together resources from police and organizations such as Winnipeg Outreach Network to find at-risk kids who are being sexually exploited and get them somewhere safe. They went out for a few hours each day starting on Friday — about 12 hours in total.

In one of the arrests, Det. Sgt. Maria Koniuck, with the counter exploitation unit, said outreach workers spotted a youth they knew was at risk for prostitution and called police.

"The [youth] was actually in a vehicle which, we believe, he was a potential consumer of prostitution," she said. "[With the project] there are more eyes and ears open for the police to do the best job that we can."

Since its inception in 2011, the project usually has five arrests in about six hours by checking areas where people are known to buy sex as well as trap houses — places where at-risk youth hang out to avoid social workers and police, often where drugs are bought and sold.

This year, officers were on the street a bit longer and they made significantly more arrests, Koniuck said.

"The sad thing is it was like shooting fish in a barrel," she said.

Although the internet has opened up the potential for people to buy and sell sex online, there are still people on the street, Koniuk said.

"It seems like if there's a product, there seems to be a consumer."

It's important to connect with kids who are at risk of going to the street, or already there, as soon as possible, Koniuk said. Police see kids as young as 13 selling sex, and Koniuk said by that age, they can already be entrenched in it.

Through Project Return, 13 at-risk youth were found and taken to a safe place, police said.

Police also talked with 46 people involved in the sex trade to make sure they were okay and provide connections to services. They also handed out harm-reduction kits, food and clothing.

Koniuk said it's important for police to work with outreach groups and connect with people in the community. It means more people will contact police to let them know when a kid might end up on the streets.

"I really see a lot of the community are supportive of us and they will call and they will tell us. They don't want this to happen in their community," she said.