UNDERAGE prostitution is a critical problem in the Seattle-King County region. An estimated 300-500 youths between the ages of 13 and 18...

UNDERAGE prostitution is a critical problem in the Seattle-King County region.

An estimated 300-500 youths between the ages of 13 and 18 work the streets, trading sex for money. A city of Seattle-commissioned study found a connection between underage prostitution and gang activity. Gang members often press young girls into prostitution and take the money.

Arresting them offers no solution. Many leave juvenile detention to find their pimps waiting.

A comprehensive and effective plan starts with shelter. To keep young girls from being forced back onto the streets and into prostitution, safe shelter is necessary.

A place to stay also removes the economic incentive to work on the streets. The Seattle City Council, led on this issue by Councilmember Tim Burgess, wants a shelter that could house 25. This is a good starting point.

Once the girls are safe, wraparound services, including mental-health services, must be provided. Many underage prostitutes in the city’s study had been sexually abused.

The study and Seattle’s proposal for safe housing for underage prostitution are timely. The new King County Mental Illness and Drug Dependency Fund will raise $50 million a year countywide on social and mental health services. The money comes from an increase in the sales tax. The Metropolitan King County Council decides what gets funded; Seattle’s plan is said to be a likely bet. Good.

In addition to shelter, the city should work to increase personnel doing street outreach and better coordinate these services with neighborhood agencies. Many who work with youths on the streets want better training, particularly in working with sexually exploited youngsters. They should get it.