“I don’t know if I’m good at playing any instruments yet,” Jacqueline Jackson, 53, says just minutes before she takes one of 11 seats to receive her diploma for graduation from Cincinnati Union Bethel’s Off the Streets (OTS) program Nov. 30.
“I’ve never tried. Maybe if I try different instruments, maybe I’ll be good at something. I can’t say that I’m not.”
Learning to play an instrument is still on Jackson’s life to do list; during her time in Off the Streets, a program dedicated to helping women involved in prostitution turn their lives around, she has learned she has a gift for singing, She’s currently three months into earning her GED and plans on pursuing an education in social work after that, hopefully finding work as a drug counselor or a faith minister on the side.
It’s been a long journey to recovery for Jackson; she had her first experience prostituting shortly after turning 20.
Jackson grew up with an alcoholic mother and an abusive stepfather; for a long time, she was terrified of alcohol and vowed to steer clear of it. When she became a dancer to make ends meet, she developed a drinking problem. “I had to drink, drink, drink to have courage to get up on stage and take my clothes off,” she says. Her pimp introduced her crack-cocaine, and she quickly became addicted. It’s a drug often abused by prostitutes because it numbs the experience of a “lick,” or job, the girls say.
Jackson’s been clean for six months and 22 days.
“For me, the most difficult thing [about going through the program] was finding out who I am. Because when I began to learn who I am, I didn’t like who I was. … I didn’t love me. As time went on and I started learning who I really was, then I began to love me. Then I began to feel like I was worthwhile.”
About three times a year, OTS holds a graduation ceremony to honor women like Jackson who have successfully completed the program.
Graduation is a modest occasion, held most recently in the basement meeting room of the Anna Louise Inn in Lytle Park. The small, crowded room didn’t have quite enough chairs to support the turnout, which grows by the year.
The OTS program, created in 2006, is spearheaded by Cincinnati Union Bethel, but works in partnership with the criminal justice system, social service agencies, medical providers, mental health treatment agencies and the faith community to provide a comprehensive life rehabilitation program, focusing on six areas of need: emergency needs, housing, medical care, mental health, substance abuse, education and employment.
The program has recently found itself at the center of a zoning dispute between Cincinnati Union Bethel and longtime neighbor Western & Southern Financial Group, which wants to renovate the building into a high-end hotel.
Western & Southern has argued in court that housing the Off the Streets program within the Anna Louise Inn, the city’s only subsidized housing for single, low-income women, constitutes a change of use from “transitional housing” to “special assistance shelter.” A successful lawsuit by W&S froze $14 million in city-and state-funded loans for a renovation of the Inn, though the defined use is essentially a technicality, as Cincinnati Union Bethel has secured zoning permits from the city under both definitions. The First District Court of Appeals is expected to rule on CUB’s appeal in the next two weeks.
[For more information on the dispute between the Anna Louise Inn and Western & Southern, find a collection of CityBeat's coverage here.]
Before OTS existed, women in Cincinnati might be arrested for solicitation or drug possession, serve jail time and be thrown back on the streets with no new tools to rehabilitate a habitual way of life many might have known since adolescence. OTS corks the holes left by the actions of the justice system, working to re-empower prostituted women and reform them into productive members of society, not just hand them punishments.
Achieving a diploma is a holistic process, a path of accomplishments that’s different for every OTS student. Most, like Jackson, need about four to six months in OTS; for others, the process is slower — up to 13 months of rehabilitation.
“To really move on, it means you’ve graduated to the point where you have self-sufficiency,” explains Mary Carol Melton, executive vice president at Cincinnati Union Bethel and OTS program director.
To Melton and staff, that means they’re looking for these woman to, with their guidance and nurturing, procure safe and affordable housing and a way to support themselves, either through school, a job, government assistance or a combination of the three.
Being admitted into the program means committing to living on the premises for its duration and following staff’s orders — the first 30 days of admittance typically focus on getting clean and undergoing mental health assessments with no outside distractions. They’re free to walk away from the program any time; it’s not a locked-down facility, although curfews are in place for safety purposes, and sometimes, especially in the program’s early stages, weekend excursions might be monitored pretty strictly, Melton explains. Each woman is paired with a peer facilitator, a woman who has also survived prostitution and drug addiction, a structural technique the girls in the program repeatedly praise.
“They can honestly tell me they understand how I feel. They didn’t read about me out of a book and all of the things I went through. They’ve lived it,” says Brandi Lane, 25, after receiving her diploma from her facilitator, Lisha Lungelow.
Sometimes, the OTS women end up in the program as part of probation orders. Others have been referred by family members or friends; some, like OTS alumnae Janis from Columbus, commit themselves.
“I’d been involved in drug addiction, human trafficking and prostitution for 28 years and I just couldn’t do another day of it. I was so broken, desperate. I didn’t know what else to do so I came to Cincinnati,” she tells the graduating crowd at the Friday afternoon ceremony, in between long pauses and deep breaths.
“When I got on the streets I was 14, and when I got off I was 43. No woman needs be out there that long. We’re exploited in ways that are unknown to anyone else. Only another woman who’s been out there knows. … I’m working on collaborating with some people and judges to start a place like this in Columbus. We don’t have one. So that’s my next venture. And I started here.”
Each woman’s tale is unique. Each is tragic. Each is defined by struggle, hardship, hurt and abuse. Most, like Jackson, are working on figuring out who they are. They haven’t given themselves the chance to find out.
None got into prostitution because they dreamt of it as a little girl, or because they liked the work. These women, too, were once aspiring ballerinas, veterinarians, happy wives, mothers.
“They all have a great spirit of hope. They’re ready to participate and they’re ready to get better and they’re scared to death they’re not going to,” says volunteer Karen McGee, who heads OTS’s Friday morning listening circle, a therapeutic talk session that covers topics like relationships, family and parenting.
Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls spoke at last week’s graduation. She hasn’t missed a graduation ceremony since OTS was founded; she’s inspired by the courage and faith the program brings out in the OTS women.
“You are role models and you need to realize that,” Qualls told the graduates. “It takes courage, it takes conviction, it takes a willingness to try, maybe fail, try, maybe fail and try again. You are an inspiration to me. Never lose sight of that.”