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Prostitution: Cook County sheriff's office lends hand to women to stop prostitution
2 counselors are former prostitutes who try to end hookers' cycle of crime

Friday, April 17, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Angela Rozas

The woman leans back in the chair, her head flopping from side to side, her bloodshot eyes rolling back. High on heroin and cocaine, she struggles to keep her eyes open. With a serrated voice, she tells the social workers she is ready to leave the street.

"I'm just so tired and scared," says the Chicago woman, 26. "I know the next car I jump in may be the last."

Just an hour earlier, she was arrested on a Chicago street for prostitution for the 13th time in five years. But instead of going straight to a police lockup on this rainy Thursday night, she sits in a windowless room at the Cook County Sheriff's Office in Maywood as three women lay out her choices: stay on the street and risk her life or get help, right here, right now.

"You don't have to go out there again. We're going to find you some place to stay tonight," whispers Brenda Myers-Powell, leaning toward her in the cramped room.

Myers-Powell works as one of two peer coordinators for Sheriff Tom Dart's prostitution intervention team. The coordinators offer shelter, counseling for drug addiction or abuse, child care, financial assistance and jobs for prostitutes after their arrests. And they do it with an understanding ear; both coordinators are former prostitutes.

"Our goal is very simple: to try to reach a woman at her most vulnerable point and show her the way out," said Dorenda Dixon, who supervises the coordinators.

The intervention program is the brainchild of the county's Department of Women's Justice Services, which for a decade has worked with women inmates in the County Jail.

The department has discovered, more than 40 percent of the women in the jail have worked as prostitutes at some point in their lives. Prostitution was not a choice but a consequence of all the other failures in their lives, the staff says.

Instead of locking up prostitutes for the same crimes again and again, the department is trying to help women deal with the underlying problems that led them to sell their bodies in the first place. But the program is strictly voluntary, and the women will still face charges, even if they enroll.

More than a year in planning, the intervention program is still in its infancy and off to a modest start. In its first test as part of a prostitution roundup in November, only one of eight arrested women agreed to join the program. That woman is still in it, attending weekly meetings with staff, getting child-care help and re-enrolling in college.

On a second roundup recently, the 26-year-old is one of two women offered assistance to escape prostitution. The Tribune agreed not to name either woman in order to profile their stories.

Dressed casually in her long-sleeved shirt, tan pants and sneakers, she seems intrigued at first at the idea of leaving the street. She was arrested near 47th Street and Cicero Avenue after taking $20 from an undercover deputy for a sex act.

But soon the woman's words of hope turn to denial. Maybe not now, she says. She and her girlfriend have a hotel room paid up for the week, and she doesn't want to get clean without her.

"What's going to happen is one of you is not going to make it," Myers-Powell tells the woman. "She's not here right now. But you are. You can get out, and maybe we can convince her to come and join you later."

Myers-Powell speaks from experience. She was a prostitute for almost three decades, turning her first trick at 15. By the time she was 40, she had been shot or stabbed nearly 20 times, she says.

She hit bottom in 1997 when she was dragged five blocks by a john who wanted his money back, an attack that ripped flesh from her body, required a week's hospital stay and convinced her to find a new life. She has been clean for more than a decade.

In their dealings with prostitutes, the social workers talk about faith, power and their own experiences on the street. They hold the women's hands and whisper support—but throw in stern warnings too. It's a constant stream of conversation, coddling and coaxing.

"This is God calling for you," Marian Hatcher, an assistant in the program who is also a former prostitute and drug addict, told the woman. "Reach out and grab it."

After a half hour, the woman is unmoved. She tells them she's tired and just wants to sleep. She will not be convinced tonight.

Myers-Powell grabs what appears to be lipstick from her bag, hands it to the woman and tells her to open it. Hidden inside, where a pimp likely wouldn't find it, is the group's emergency hot line number.

Dixon hopes they at least have planted a seed. Sometimes, prostitutes have to fall to the bottom of a hole before they're ready to climb out, she says.

They have better luck with their second candidate, a 43-year-old woman with 27 arrests for prostitution and an abusive boyfriend at home.

She is also high, talking so quickly that the social workers struggle to understand her. Dressed in an oversized gray sweat shirt, purple sweat pants and sneakers, she tells them she turns tricks to buy drugs.

But she tells the social workers she's tired of the life. They call a shelter hot line and arrange for a cab to take her to a safe location. They give her $5 but stress it's only to be spent on food.

As they wait for the cab, the woman tells them she was molested as a child and beaten and abused by more men than she can count.

"I be looking for love in all the wrong places," she says as she knots a used tissue in her hands. "The only men who talk to me are when I'm turning tricks. That was the only time I felt loved."

After the cab arrives, the women walk her to the front door, hug her and offer last-minute bits of advice.

"Get a good night's sleep," one implores. "Call us when you get there," chimes another.

"You are angels," says the woman, smiling awkwardly before hurrying to the waiting taxi.

The social workers shuffle back into the sheriff's office. The next day, they'll assign a caseworker to contact the woman. They are hopeful but realistic about her chances.

Dixon sighs: "When the drugs wear off will be the true test."

The next day, the woman wakes with no memory of how she got to a hotel room. She finds the hot line number the workers had given her, calls it and learns what happened. Two weeks later, she remains in drug treatment and lives in a women's shelter, officials said.

arozas@tribune.com


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