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Leaving the streets behind - Apr 18, 2006

by Pam DeFiglio | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)

Brenda Myers-Powell winces when she thinks about the prostitute murdered in Addison recently.

For 23 years, Myers-Powell exposed herself to the same dangers. In Rosemont, she opened her bedroom door to strangers. In Chicago, she got into cars with men she didn’t know.

“I’ve been shot five times and stabbed 13 times,” she says, sitting at a booth in a Rosemont restaurant. “The pimps say they’ll protect you, but if the john wants to strangle you, he will.”

In the Addison case, police say Kristi Hoening was stabbed to death by a man who’d hired her through an escort service.

Myers-Powell knew that kind of risk as well - but lived long enough to walk away.

Now 48, she talks about these things at a distance. Ten years ago this month, she left the streets, giving up both prostitution and drugs.

She has come a long way in that decade. And she’s not the only one.

Independent filmmaker Salome Chasnoff of Beyondmedia Education recently completed a film, “Turning a Corner,” about the lives of Myers-Powell and 14 other women who used to sell their bodies on the streets. All of them have amazing stories to tell.

These women haven’t merely gotten off the streets. They’ve become activists. They worked on the film, and they’ve lobbied legislators in Springfield for a bill that would help prostitutes.

“We’re doing it to put a face on prostitution,” says Helen Smith, one of the women profiled in the film. “We’re human beings with feelings. Something tragic happened to put us out on the streets.”

Rough beginnings

For many of the women, the “something tragic” was being sexually abused as children. Many never got parental support or counseling after the abuse, and it left them with a skewed sense of what was appropriate sexually, according to Samir Goswami, who formerly ran a child abuse prevention program at the Northwest Council Against Sexual Assault in Arlington Heights.

That vulnerability - and lack of boundaries for their bodies - left these women with few defenses when pimps pushed them into prostituting themselves.

Lucretia Clay had it worse than most. In the film she describes how she turned 12 and her mother sold her to a pimp in Chicago. At that age, she couldn’t comprehend what was happening.

“You have to be careful when you say things like, ‘She’s there by choice,’ ” Myers-Powell cautions. “When you’re 13 and you get into this, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Sometimes the abuse starts even younger. In the film, a former prostitute named Betty Gibson talks about a plantation overseer in Mississippi forcing her to fondle him, and then giving her 50 cents - when she was just 4 years old.

Other women said when they were children they saw prostitutes in their poor Chicago neighborhoods, and the women looked glamorous.

Myers-Powell, for example, talks about seeing women getting into cars wearing satin dresses and sparkly jewelry.

“I wanted to be all shiny like them,” recalls Myers-Powell, who was molested at age 11. “I felt so bad inside. But at the time, I didn’t know the pain they felt inside.”

Myers-Powell got pregnant at age 14, and again at 15, by neighborhood boyfriends, she says. She took up her aunt’s offer to raise her two daughters in a stable home, and visited them when she could.

Also at 15, Myers-Powell began a life in prostitution.

Cinderella syndrome

In the process of making the film, Chasnoff brought the women to places where they had worked. Stories and emotions started to flow.

“It’s hard to come back and look at this place,” says Clay, wiping back tears at a site in Chicago. “It’s hard to believe I spent 26 years of my life out here. I got brain-locked into what I was doing.”

Gibson, the woman abused as a 4-year-old, describes in the film how she fled her parents’ house after being mistreated. She started in the sex trade at 15.

“At first it was exciting. I thought my pimp really liked me,” she says in the film. “I thought after a while I’d get an apartment and wouldn’t have to sell my body.”

That never happened. But social service agencies offered her a hand, and she pulled herself up.

Debra Rollins tells the camera that she worked as a prostitute from age 19 to 42.

“Nobody loved me,” she says. “I wanted a man to love me. Now I know I can love myself.”

Myers-Powell takes that thought further.

“The same people that victimize us, we want them to rescue us. It’s the Cinderella syndrome,” she says. “But we meet them as ‘hos and they treat us like ‘hos.’ ”

Goswami explains that the women’s longing for love goes back to their being abused as children.

“If it was a dad or grandpa doing the abuse, the child starts thinking that’s how he expresses love and affection,” explains Goswami, now executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“Survivors of prostitution say they started looking for that (affection) from their customers.”

‘She can’t leave’

Many women turn to prostitution because they’re homeless and need quick cash.

A Chicago Coalition for the Homeless study found that 75 percent of sex workers, at all levels of prostitution, experience homelessness.

“I know of a woman working for an escort service. She can’t leave, because she has no other way to pay rent,” says the coalition’s Goswami.

While some top prostitutes charge $800, a fee of $10 to $100 is more typical. That’s before the pimp takes half. Then factor in the cost of drugs.

“I’ve never met a survivor yet who said, ‘I can do this sober,’” says Goswami.

When the coalition surveyed the women, 74 percent reported substance abuse issues.

And when the Coalition asked women why they worked as prostitutes, one-quarter said to feed their kids, one-quarter said to pay rent and one-quarter said they had a part-time job but it didn’t pay enough to live on.

“They’re not making money in prostitution,” he says. “If they were, you’d see a lot more retiring early.”

From street to Senate

The women in the film have become leaders in a coalition initiative called the Prostitution Alternatives Round Table. They’re looking for ways to help people get out of the sex trade, and they talk about the issues prostitutes face.

They have a bone to pick with the police.

The film shows them angrily questioning why police arrest prostitutes while pimps and johns go free for the most part.

On film, Myers-Powell rattles off a statistic: Of the prostitution arrests made, about three-quarters are of prostitutes, 25 percent are johns and 1 percent are pimps. The coalition compiled that information after monitoring Chicago arrest data.

The women say police mainly target street prostitutes, not the higher-paid call girls and women selling themselves out of massage parlors or strip clubs. Those women aren’t as visible to cops cruising the streets.

“When we think about sex workers, we think about street prostitutes, but depending on what study you look at, they are only between 10 and 20 percent of the total,” says filmmaker Chasnoff.

Indoor prostitutes have higher status in the flesh trade. When a prostitute ages, she is often forced to walk the streets.

Myers-Powell worked indoors when she was young. Some of that work was in Rosemont, where conventions and air travelers provided a steady clientele.

“Rosemont used to have a lot of prostitution in condos, because of people coming through O’Hare,” she says. “There were a lot of massage parlors. They made a lot of money because nobody was kicking in the door.”

To get business, she said, pimps and operators would advertise in alternative newspapers or give a cut to cab drivers who brought in customers.

Gary Mack, a spokesman for the village of Rosemont, agrees that it’s an issue.

“It’s a systemic problem throughout the world: Wherever you have millions of conventioneers who pass through an area, it’s fertile ground for this to exist,” he says. “Rosemont has worked diligently to eradicate this problem, but large conventions are probably one of the most lucrative areas for those who ply this trade.”

“When people are making money like that,” Myers-Powell adds, “does it ever stop?”

If there are profits to be made, she says, pimps will be involved.

The women of PART are fighting back against them. They’re championing a bill called the Predator Accountability Act, which the Illinois Senate and House have both passed. It’s on its way to Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s desk, and he’ll have 60 days to decide whether to sign it.

The bill would allow prostitutes to sue predators, such as pimps and johns, for financial damages. Prostitutes would have to prove they were recruited into the sex trade, and that the predator profited.

The film shows the women visiting at the Capitol, telling lawmakers articulate, moving stories of how pimps took advantage of them.

A john could kill you

Sex workers face a litany of miseries.

“You may get beat up, go to jail, you may have bad nights, moments of depression when you’re feeling like the lowest thing on Earth. But you start accepting this as normal,” says Myers-Powell.

“When it becomes too painful, you start medicating - drugs or drinking - and now you find yourself in the middle of two things - trying to live, and now you’re on drugs. You just go on until you get out, like I did, or you die.”

Prostitutes turn to each other for support.

“We used to laugh about, ‘Hey, it’s been a good week, nobody raped me or took my money,’ ” Myers-Powell adds.

Many of the women in the film had friends who were killed. It happens on an all too regular basis.

About seven weeks ago, prostitute Kristi Hoenig, 21, was murdered in Addison.

Gary Schuning has been charged with killing Hoenig as well as his own mother. Prosecutors charge that Schuning killed his mother first at her Addison home. He later phoned an escort service to have a call girl delivered to the house. When Hoenig discovered evidence of the crime, she too was murdered, police say.

“We are targets of people who are sick like that,” Myers-Powell comments. “This was really disturbing to me.”

Besides the violence, prostitutes are used to having society treat them like dirt. Myers-Powell will never forget the time a john pushed her out of a car moving at 40 mph. She was taken to a hospital bloodied and unable to speak. The flesh on one arm was ripped open, and she was in danger of losing an eye.

Rape crisis counselors and domestic violence counselors were standing by to help her when, she recalls, a police officer said he recognized her, and that she was a prostitute.

“Everybody left,” she says. “Nobody cared. I just felt so low I wanted to die.”

Fortunately, one of the doctors struck up a rapport with Myers over the four days she spent in the hospital.

“She said, ‘You don’t realize what a great girl you are. I’m going to get you some services, and you’ve got to promise me you’re going to follow through.”

They know her past

Myers-Powell hopped a bus to Genesis House in Chicago and, at 38, started a journey to recovery. The nonprofit agency helps women get out of prostitution. They gave Myers-Powell counseling for a range of issues, such as being an abuse survivor. They also instructed her in practical skills, like how to get a job and a social security card.

Now she works as a case manager and HIV prevention specialist for a network of clinics based at Mount Sinai Hospital, although she says she managed to avoid contracting the disease during her years on the streets. She has become an outspoken activist for rights and protections for prostitutes.

“I know I wasn’t saved unless I could speak out,” Myers-Powell says.

Neatly dressed and attractive, her hair in loose curls, she blends in with suburbanites at the Rosemont restaurant. Her cell phone trills periodically with calls from family members.

She got married two years ago, and the marriage brought her three stepchildren.

Myers-Powell says she has also developed a close relationship with her two grown daughters. One became a doctor; the other worked for a bank before having a baby and returning to school full time.

Myers-Powell worried her work supporting prostitutes would embarrass them, but she says they know about her past and support her.

So she will continue to make noise about the mistreatment and dangers prostitutes face. She wants people to see past the myths about workers in the flesh industry.

“When something bad happens to a prostitute, people say, ‘She got what she deserved.’

“But it’s not, because who deserves that?” Myers-Powell asks. “What she deserves is a way out.”