It's Easter morning. At Vine and Liberty streets, three Franciscan Brothers are stationed on the sidewalk beneath the shade of a large tree.
They're greeting parishioners of St. Francis Seraph Church. Robed in traditional friars' garb and smiling, they're shaking hands and hugging people, welcoming parishioners into a church that's been situated in the same location since 1859, a church known for its soup kitchen, community involvement and the Sarah Center, a neighborhood outreach center for women.
Two blocks northeast, I cross paths with Lisa (not her real name) just off McMicken Street near a playground and a row of forlorn industrial buildings closed for the weekend, or forever. Her shoulder-length hair is blowing in the wind, and her yellow cotton top doesn't quite meet her slender jeans, leaving her lean stomach exposed, her hips cocked elegantly, sort of.
She gives me the look as I pass by. It's subtle enough, but it's something any man knows. I turn around and make one more pass just to be certain, but not before I notice another vehicle, a small pickup truck doing the same thing I am: cruising for a prostitute.
I accelerate to reach her first and, as soon as I pull up, she opens the door and climbs in, smiling a big, fake smile. This is Lisa's story, and many others'.
The street life
We circle the block as I search for a quiet, safe place to pull over and talk. It's not an easy task on a beautiful Sunday morning.
The streets are filled with toddlers and children playing happily. On a sidewalk, young girls are swinging long jump ropes and clapping. Across the street a Cincinnati Police cruiser and an undercover Durango sit idling. A half-dozen officers have two young men cuffed and sitting on the curb as one officer empties the magazine from a gun they just took off one of the youths.
We finally find a place beneath a small tree protruding half-heartedly from an iron grate in the sidewalk.
Lisa is 39 years old. She has a 5-year-old and an adult child. Her youngest, like most of the women I spoke to, stays with family.
Lisa has been on the street off and on for some time now. With the recent police crackdown in Over-the-Rhine, she's noticed changes.
"There's a difference now, yes," she says. "Just lately there's been a lot of undercover around. They try to pick me up."
If they can't pick her up, she says, "They'll stop you and run you through (the computer) to see if you have any warrants. Or if you're in one spot too long, they'll run you off."
When asked if she had one thing to say about her situation, working on the street in Cincinnati, Lisa's reply is immediate.
"It sucks!" she says, then laughs heartily. "Yes, it sucks very badly."
She's not shy about telling it like it is. But in all the ups and downs in her story -- and they're mostly downs -- she never blames anyone else.
In the past, she worked as a waitress, and now she makes more working on the street. I ask if she makes a lot more.
"Yeah, but that's not why I do it," Lisa says.
At this moment, despite the fact that we've been discussing her selling her body at the lowest rung on the sex-trade ladder, the street corner, she bows her head sheepishly.
"I do it because I smoke crack cocaine," she says.
The next day I find Lisa again in the same neighborhood. Same clothes, same look. She doesn't recognize me at first as she crosses the sidewalk in front of the firehouse at McMicken and Vine, so she bends down a little and waves, giving me the look.
When I motion her to come over, she does. I can't read her mind, but she's probably thinking I'm an oasis, a friendly face in a sea of unfriendly ones.
Though I'm not a customer, she's happy to see me nonetheless. For her, the problems are myriad.
"The dope boys give me problems if I won't buy from them," she says. "They get mad. I only deal with certain people."
While Lisa feels comfortable buying drugs only from people she knows, that doesn't mean others feel uncomfortable dealing with her.
"Yesterday he said, 'You ain't gonna' buy from me?' and when I said 'No,' he told me when I came back out the door he was going to Tase me," she says of a certain dealer. "He throws pop and juice on me when he sees me."
When I ask Lisa where she stays, where she lives, there's a moment of silence.
"Usually I never take a break," she says. "But if I want to, there are certain little cubbyholes in the alleys, and there's this barn or sometimes I go in the woods behind the church. That's the only place I can be alone."
On Elm Street near Henry Avenue, T-Baby, a 32-year-old woman with four children who also stay with family, readily climbs into my car on a rainy weekday afternoon, though she seems distracted and aloof. Wearing a black bubble jacket and jeans and soaked through and through, she doesn't smoke the cigarette I give her. Instead she palms it, holding it carefully throughout our conversation.
After being beat up, robbed and raped multiple times, T-Baby says, "I really watch who I deal with now."
Where does she sleep?
"When I get tired and want to get away, I can go to my mom's," she says.
Asked about treatment for drug addiction and other problems, T-Baby says she's been in 10 programs. As the rain begins pouring harder, she interrupts me impatiently and asks, "Do you have any more questions?"
I do have more questions but acquiesce and thank her, handing over a full pack of smokes. Without fanfare, she jumps out and yells across the street to a short, thin, scantily clad woman in her 40s walking down the sidewalk.
"Pearl! You want a cigarette?" she barks, holding up the pack and shaking it, crossing the street.
As I pull away, the rain falls even harder and I watch T-Baby and Pearl huddle in a doorway in my rearview mirror.
On a sunny afternoon a week later, a dozen or so blocks from where I met Lisa and T-Baby, I sit at a large, ornate wooden table in a room adjoining Mary Carol Melton's office. She's the vice president of resource development at Cincinnati Union Bethel, the oldest social service agency west of the Allegheny Mountains.
Founded in 1830, its mission is "to provide supportive services and education that assist urban women, children, families and communities to realize their greatest potential."
"It's really timely that CityBeat is running this article right now," Melton says. "This initiative began because many of us in criminal justice, mental health and substance abuse endeavors were looking specifically at women's issues. We really wanted to pay attention to gender-specific needs."
With a grant for planning from the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati, Melton formed an unprecedented collaborative association with more than 20 public and private entities. During the first week of April, they launched Off the Streets, a far-reaching effort to secure a realistic, proven plan for successfully helping women leave street prostitution.
Off the Streets (OTS) representatives visited San Francisco, where they studied a 10-year-old program founded by Norma Hotaling, a former street prostitute. The Standing Against Global Exploitation Project (SAGE) began with a grassroots effort but now receives local, state and federal funding. Hotaling's program is one of the most successful in the country and has received numerous awards.
Although it didn't receive its first female clients until April, since January Off the Streets has held two classes for offenders -- but these classes weren't for women.
The Johns Education Program is an eight-hour class that men convicted of soliciting a prostitute must attend. The class includes presentations from the prosecutor's office, AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Police Department, survivors of prostitution and community representatives.
The fees men pay for the class help support programs for women. In addition to court costs, fines, tuition and possible probation costs, men arrested in Cincinnati for soliciting a prostitute are subject to having their vehicles impounded under an ordinance enacted in 2002.
If a person is arrested for soliciting a prostitute in the city of Cincinnati, his vehicle is towed and impounded and he's charged a $500 civil fine plus tow and storage charges. This is a valuable tool in the city's efforts against prostitution, according to Capt. Howard Rahtz of the Vice Unit.
"The civil fine has significantly increased the price for that behavior," he says.
And it works, too.
"We've only had a miniscule number of repeat arrests out of hundreds of men we've arrested," Rahtz says. "It's an expensive lesson for them -- and very embarrassing. We get lots of calls from wives and girlfriends who want to know exactly why their car was towed."
While targeting the customers of prostitution is an important element in the struggle to clean up the streets and help women involved in prostitution, the most pressing issue facing the women isn't men or sex, but drugs.
"Crack," Rahtz says emphatically. "Absolutely, that's the thing that drives street prostitution more than anything right now. When I think of trends, the addiction thing really comes to the forefront."
There are no set prices or rates for what a customer can get. In fact, everything I learned about the sex itself revolved around one thing: crack.
"We've had sting operations where girls have offered sex for $2," Rahtz says.
"I'll try to get the most money I can," says one girl. "But if I'm really hurting, I'll take whatever I can get."
The lowest dollar amount I heard was $5. What can you get for that? Anything. When? Anytime. Where? Anywhere: vehicle, motel, apartment, vacant building, alley, bushes.
"That's the price of a rock," says one young girl, probably 15 -- 16 at the oldest.
Will OTS be able to help change lives in the same way the SAGE project has? Melton and others are optimistic.
After the planning grant was put to use, Cincinnati Union Bethel returned to the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati and received funding for a full three-year implementation of the program. After the grant was received and the program began in earnest, OTS received an unexpected bonus.
Xtraordinary Women, a new non-profit organization formed in 2005 to aid and assist other non-profits in the Tristate, recently announced a collaboration with Off the Streets.
"We are also a fledgling group, like Off the Streets, and that's why we thought it would be a great partnership," says Jane Fischer, president of Xtraordinary Women. "Xtraordinary Women will do substantial fundraising for OTS as well as contributing volunteer hours. We also want to do publicity in terms of helping people understand what it is and letting people know it's out there and available."
Xtraordinary Women will volunteer time and energy to OTS for up to two years before moving on to another non-profit to assist. While Fischer has good intentions, it will be a long, hard road. There are many candidates for their help.
Knives, guns and rape
I met Breezy (not her real name) on a Sunday morning near Elm and McMicken. She, too, has children who stay with family.
At 36, a spry and diminutive woman, Breezy was raised in "a really good home. We were taught to look down on this kind of thing."
Of the women I speak with, Breezy's attitude is the best, if that's a word applicable to the life of a woman involved in street prostitution.
"I'm devastated," she says. "They say God helps those who help themselves, but sometimes there are people in situations where they can't help themselves."
When asked if she's on crack, Breezy says no, not for a while now. How long?
"I mean not today," she says.
At one point Breezy was a college student and worked as the office manager for an attorney. Now she has to pay for a place to sleep for a few hours and stays up for several days at a time.
"I've been beat up a lot of times," she says. "It's a trying experience. Oh gosh, oh Lord, I've been through all types of stuff."
If there's one constant in the lives of these women, it's danger. Breezy describes a recent encounter.
"A guy in a white van seemed like he could be a college professor," she says. "He gave no warning at all. He just flipped. He raped me for three or four hours until a lady looked in the van and asked if I was OK. I jumped out naked while the van was moving."
Another danger, not as visible but deadly nonetheless, is disease. While most of the women I spoke to were aware of the AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati's office on Findlay Street and their free HIV testing, not all take advantage of it.
"Some girls don't want to come to the office because others might think they're HIV-positive," says Debbie Burstion, an AVOC outreach worker.
But one thing most girls do share is the free condoms AVOC supplies.
"At least 10 people a week come through our doors for condoms," Burstion says. "Many of these people take extra and distribute them to the other girls."
Danger isn't lost on Lisa's mother. At 75, Georgia (not her real name) is the quintessential grandmother as she sees Lisa's niece off after a homemade dinner.
"Thanks for dinner, Grandma," the teenager says.
"You're entirely welcome. Anytime, honey," she says, shuffling the young girl out the door.
Georgia's suburban home is Lisa's as well when she's not on the street. A few days earlier, Lisa was able to attend her daughter's soccer game.
Sitting back down at the dining room table, the first thing Georgia says is, "I do worry a lot because of the area where she's at. There's so much violence. Even with the extra police they're putting down there, it's still not safe."
"They've pulled knives on me, guns on me," she says. "They've never hurt me, knock on wood."
Lisa comes and goes, staying out for up to seven days, often without sleeping. When she does, it isn't always restful.
"The other night when I went to sleep I was a mess," she says. "There was an empty apartment in an alley up the street. Somebody took me there, a guy. He sort of made me because I was a mess. He stayed with me, but I just wanted him to leave so I could just cry, you know. But he wouldn't leave."
While talking to Lisa and her mother about three weeks after I first met her on the street, she mentioned she'd recently been arrested.
"For loitering to engage in prostitution," she says. "They gave me this."
She hands me a dirty, ripped-up copy of an Off the Streets brochure. It had half a dozen phone numbers scrawled on it and several pieces missing where phone numbers had been written and given away.
Asked if she had called yet, Lisa pauses and says, "No, but I'm thinking about it."
Carmen (not her real name) was in her 40s when she was raped at gunpoint and thrown from a vehicle unclothed. That was her lowest point.
Shortly after that, she was arrested on a prostitution charge, among others, and finally came in from the cold. That was more than 10 years ago. Crack cocaine was a major component of her life on the streets.
It was the same for Annette (not her real name), who in the end found that drugs were also the driving force in her life. Annette narrowly escaped a fate that would define her future: Hours after she strolled away from her residence, two of her roommates killed a drug dealer. Before she learned of the events, she had voluntarily checked into rehab with the aid of a Narcotics Anonymous member who'd struck up a conversation with her on a sidewalk. That was nearly 15 years ago.
When I speak with Carmen and Annette, they're well-dressed, articulate women with definite ideas about drugs, women involved in prostitution and social responsibility. Both now work in full-time positions as advocates for a major non-profit in a Midwest city, and both are enrolled in college. (They don't want their home city revealed for privacy reasons.)
Annette travels widely, speaking and making presentations nationwide. Carmen works extensively in faith-based groups and says she feels no burden from the cross she carries.
"I feel like every day, because I'm clean, the people that see me depend upon me to stay clean," Carmen says. "It's a responsibility I have, yet one I don't mind having. Part of the whole process of getting clean and part of the text that we've read from says that we are trusted servants and that our primary purpose is to stay clean and help someone else achieve it, and that's how I feel.
"For a long time I never felt like I had a purpose in this world. Today I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt I know I do, and it's to bring people to where we are. That's what we're here to do: help people."
Just what the doctor ordered. OTS is here to help women in a way that hasn't been offered previously in Cincinnati. At a recent Over-the-Rhine community meeting, a police officer remarked, "We've needed something like this for so long."
Melton says the OTS team provides an entry into a safety net of comprehensive services. With a three-phase program, she's confident OTS will succeed in helping women involved in prostitution leave the streets behind.
The first phase is safety, which might include housing, food and medical care. The second phase is recovery, which might include trauma counseling, substance abuse and mental health services, as well as establishing healthy lifestyles. The third and final phase focuses on empowerment and might include life-skills education, job training and establishing community connections.
OTS has also received additional funding through the Hamilton County Mental Health Board to go into the Justice Center and offer trauma support services to women.
"The administration at the Justice Center has been extremely helpful," Melton says.
Facing the trauma
One strength of OTS is its commitment to hiring several staff members who have experienced similar circumstances in their lives.
"We wanted people who women could relate to," Melton says. "Part of our planning team were women who experienced prostitution."
Involving peers who've experienced the same situations is extremely important, according to Wendy Niehaus, director of the Hamilton County Department of Pre-Trial Services and a member of the OTS planning team.
"The whole point of OTS is engaging women who are completely shut down," she says. "That's where the mentoring and peer programs come in -- women who've been there, done that. Incarceration by itself will not help. We have a lot of hope, and many of us are passionate about this. These are real people we're trying to help."
Any social worker will tell you that recovery from major trauma is a long process. OTS' goal is to be a core element of recovery.
"Our program focuses on the core issues of trauma, which we know women who have experienced prostitution have," Melton says. "A woman going here for one service and here for another service who never addresses core issues of trauma can never recover, because they're working in a fragmented way."
"These women have so many regrets about their lives," she says. "If we can just give them a little bit of hope and the opportunity to take one step at a time..."
Off the Streets will utilize dozens of services to enable complete recovery.
Who could use it more than Michelle (not her real name)? She's in her early 20s and all smiles when I begin talking to her on Race Street near Liberty.
"I try to keep myself clean and healthy," she says. "I get an AIDS test every three months. I buy a new outfit at Family Dollar every day."
She smoothes her halter-top, fiddling with the top of her shorts, which are rolled down to reveal her panties.
"I came out here 'cause I was in group homes," Michelle says. "I got no family."
She gets flustered and begins crying. Her last words, before she jogs down the sidewalk and jumps into a car, wiping her eyes, are, "I feel like I been out here 40 years. I been out here four!"
Will Off the Streets succeed?
"Time will tell," Melton says. "We know that a lot of women on the streets have been there for years. We have clients right now, and we're ready for more."
What about Lisa?
"I'm really tired," she says.
"It's not a lifestyle you want to live," she says. "We take chances every day, risking our lives."
"When I stop and think about it, I know that some day it'll be all right," she says. "I'll be OK."
Her final remarks could serve as a commercial for Off the Streets.
"I just want to be stable in a stable living environment doing things I like to do, being with family and kids," she says. ©
Facts About Local Prostitution
· Under Ohio law, the penalty for solicitation, a third-degree misdemeanor, is up to 60 days in jail or a $500 fine or both. If the prostitute or the john is HIV positive, the offense is a third-degree felony with a sentence of up to five years or $10,000 or both.
The use of a vehicle by a prostitute or a john is a fourth-degree misdemeanor, carrying up to 30 days in jail or a $250 fine, plus a license suspension of six months to five years.
· From World Sex Guide regarding prostitution in Cincinnati: "Here is a review of Cincinnati, Ohio. First of all, if you don't live here, don't even try looking. The cops are extremely big on busting hookers and johns. Simply said, don't even try. ... If you are cruising and not a picky person, then you will find a good selection. They are everywhere."
Most popular street prostitution sites in Cincinnati:
· Over-the-Rhine: Elm, Race, McMicken, Vine, Liberty, Walnut and associated alleys and side streets
· Lower Price Hill: State Avenue near Eighth Street and Glenway Avenue near Warsaw Avenue
· Walnut Hills: Lincoln Avenue near Gilbert Avenue
· Avondale: Reading Road
· Roselawn: Reading Road
-- James Proffitt