"I'm gonna say 95 percent of it is not by choice," she says. "It's not a moral situation."
Thornton bases her perspective not on scientific research data but on day-to-day experience as Outreach and Intake Coordinator for the Off the Streets Program.
"Last week I heard a lady say that they're out there because they want to be," Thornton says. "It upset me because you don't really understand that these women have been through a lot of trauma even before they came out there. There's a lot of mental illness going on, domestic violence. It's encased in trauma."
The woman later apologized to Thornton for making the remark, but that mistaken belief is why Thornton gave up her anonymity to tell her story as a former prostitute. She wants the "ladies on the street" and the general public to learn the truth.
"People judge us and look at us a certain way because they really don't know the story," she says. "The more the story is out there the more educated people get in regards to this particular situation and the more help we'll get."
'I'm out there'
Cincinnati Union Bethel developed Off the Streets two years ago to help the underserved population of women being processed through the criminal justice system. The social service agency provides women with the help they need instead of what makes the program organizers comfortable.
A successful graduate of Drug Court (see "Courting a New Start," issue of Feb. 15, 2006), Thornton volunteered as an advisor for the program's organizing committee and has been a staffer for Off the Streets from the beginning. She's been off the streets herself for 13 years.
"I had gotten really tired and I really, really, really wanted to get my life back together," she says. "I have been out there on the street selling my body and doing drugs for like 13 years. I got into drug court. ... It helped my self-esteem get built back up again because it was so low."
Back on the streets, she's is now helping other women leave "the life."
"I'm out there," Thornton says. "I'm going to pick ladies up. I'm in the jails. I'm in the Talbert Houses. I'm going anywhere and giving pamphlets of information, pretty much all over the city.
"When I walk up to them and I tell them about the program and I let them know what's going on, I see a little guilt in their faces. When I see that I tell them I've walked that journey too, so it's alright. The immediate response that I get from them a lot of times is recognition of, 'Yeah, I need help.' I have had women respond and call the number and I go and get them wherever they are."
Thornton says she never goes out alone and has to put limits on how late she'll go pick up a woman who calls. It's a recognition that she can't help anyone if she puts herself into dangerous situations.
"I don't have any kind of logo on my car," she says. "I'm not going to put myself out there in harm's way. I do know what's going on out there. ... I've been in situations where I could feel the attitude and the atmosphere changing and I just say, 'Well, thank you,' and I just turn around and walk away."
Her street smarts make it possible for Thornton to be effective and safe in situations that can easily and quickly become violent.
"I know what I'm seeing as I pull up," she says. "Usually if there's a male involved or standing there with the ladies, I approach them first and ask them (if) they know of anybody who needs assistance. They'll usually say, 'You can talk to her.'
"Now I don't know what happens after I walk away, but they allow her to get the pamphlet. But I give him his propers when I come up, so her and me both don't get in trouble. There's certain etiquette you've got out there walking up to somebody on the street."
Program has an impact
Women who are incarcerated at River City (the Hamilton County correctional facility that serves as an alternative to prison) or are staying at the Drop Inn Center homeless shelter will also see Thornton at formal meetings or if she happens to stop by when she's making her rounds. No two situations are exactly alike, she says, and that's why Off the Streets works.
Recognizing commonalities of experience means the program has the mental heath, housing, education, employment and substance use service providers lined up for making referrals. But customizing a program for each woman is the point of the intake process.
Learning what each woman needs through listening to her story appears to be working. According to the statistics gathered by Off the Streets over the last two years, 100 percent of the women who went through the program have reduced their involvement in prostitution and 80 percent report no longer being involved in prostitution.
Participants also report a 93 percent reduction in substance use and 79 percent decrease in mental health symptoms.
"For a lot of these ladies, (prostitution is) all they know," Thornton says. "They don't know how to fill out a (job) application. Or they started off at such a higher economic level that once they do this their self-esteem is so messed up that they don't think they can get it back."
Serving as living proof that it's possible to change your life is one of the most important things Thornton does, she says.
"I believe in my heart I'm doing the only thing I was supposed to do," she says. "I was out there doing drugs and my life got the way it was. I didn't understand it then. Since I've been back, I realized I was supposed to go through that so I can help these ladies."
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