Ex-Prostitutes Who Proselytize

A woman arrested for prostitution awaits processing during a vice sweep.

Seventeen-year-old Jose from Culiacán, Mexico, sits handcuffed to a metal folding chair, looking as though he just dropped his ice cream cone in the dirt. He speaks no English and has only been in Phoenix for two months. Still, he knew Van Buren Street was the place to pick up a prostitute because, as he explains with a shy grin, "Todo el mundo sabe": The whole world knows.

But Jose didn't know about the Phoenix Police Department's vice night. After a four-hour sweep, Jose is one of eight males picked up for solicitation, and 11 females arrested for prostitution.He's being detained at the PPD's mobile community policing unit in the parking lot of St. Luke's Hospital at 1800 East Van Buren. There's a booking table set up to process both prostitutes and johns, who are then loaded into a paddywagon for a trip to jail.

Excuses fall on deaf ears as the suspects try to talk their way out of their predicament. An African man with a thick accent explains that there must be some mistake because this kind of behavior is against his religion. The man next to him protests that he has only $3.19 in his pocket, and even on Van Buren you "can't get no pussy for $3.19." A belligerent woman dressed in black with ripped panty hose removes her falsies, places them in a Ziploc bag and swears she's a CI -- a confidential informant for the police.

A young woman named Nicole makes no protest. The man sitting next to her with a beer belly and scruffy beard checks her out as she politely answers an officer's questions, laughing and joking all the while. She is a "circuit girl" who turns tricks in Miami, Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix. You can spot circuit girls because they tend to be clean. They have pimps who take care of them. Nicole, who has long, red fingernails and bleached-blond hair, is wearing a spandex baby-blue shirt, cut-off jean shorts and tennis shoes. She crosses and uncrosses her legs, revealing a Winnie-the-Pooh tattoo on her ankle. She is 19.

Once Nicole has been booked, a matronly looking woman named Kathleen Mitchell escorts her to a table separate from the police assembly line.

"I know you," Mitchell tells Nicole.

She says this to all the girls.

Mitchell knows girls like Nicole because she once was one herself. Now, however, she runs DIGNITY House, a halfway house for prostitutes who want to leave that life behind.

Nicole denies knowing her, but listens to Mitchell's pitch as she wipes off the fingerprint ink.

"We're not here to judge you, we're not cops," Mitchell says. "We just want to let you know there are other options. Eventually you will have to stop."

She gives Nicole a card, says to call if she needs anything. The police load Nicole into the paddywagon. Mitchell has simply planted a seed. Nicole is not yet miserable enough to ask for help; she has a pimp who will bail her out tonight. She's young, and the streets have yet to take their toll.

It isn't hard to get into the sex industry. The hard part is getting out.

In Pretty Woman, Richard Gere reclaimed Julia Roberts from the ranks of hookers by putting her in a red dress and getting her to stop fidgeting.

But when the subject is a 10-year crackhead, it takes more than Hollywood to get her ready for the opera. It takes a saint. Or a miracle.

Prostitutes and police alike use these words to describe Kathleen Mitchell, founder and coordinator of the DIGNITY program. This 56-year-old grandmother has dedicated her life to helping women escape the sex industry. She teaches classes to prostitutes in jail and runs DIGNITY House, helping prostitutes who want a new, saner vocation.

With her white hair and gentle, soft-spoken demeanor, it is easy to imagine Mitchell in this role of caregiver, mother and savior.

She's also a former madam. In 1989, Mitchell was indicted on 14 counts of receiving earnings of a prostitute, and also on charges of leading an organized-crime syndicate and conducting an illegal enterprise. She pleaded guilty to the felony charge of operating a prostitution enterprise. Her criminal record consists of prostitution charges dating back to 1968.

"I was involved in that life of prostitution for 21 years. It's one of the hardest things in the world for a woman to live down," says Mitchell, adding that society is "willing to forgive drug dealers, perverts -- but women who prostituted and child molesters are unforgivable."

Mitchell now plays a different role in the lives of prostitutes. A year spent behind bars offered respite from her pimp and helped her see the reality of prostitution.  

"I sat in jail and watched women come in and out. Circling. The revolving door. A full year of watching women come in three and four times. I thought, 'I need to do something for me, because I don't have the addiction for drugs, I don't have the addiction for alcohol. I have an addiction for a man.'"

". . . It's relationships that push us into this, keep us in it and push us further."

She formed DIGNITY -- Developing Individual Growth and New Independence Through Yourself -- in Durango Jail in 1989 as a support group for women wanting to leave the sex industry.

Her DIGNITY House residency program opened its doors in a central-Phoenix neighborhood in April 1998 under the auspices of Catholic Social Services. A grant from the city of Phoenix got the facility off the ground.

For the most part, government leaves it to police to deal with prostitution. When vice targets Van Buren Street, officers arrest 35 to 50 prostitutes nightly. In 1999, nearly 1,600 were arrested. Jail is often the only long-term residency program available for women who want to leave street life. There are few places for indigents, and when Harbor Lights residency program closes in June, there will be 100 fewer beds.

Recovering prostitutes also face multiple addictions and societal prejudices. Those who do get out hold a tenuous grip on the straight world and are still drawn to a lifestyle many say is addictive.

DIGNITY House is the only program in the city that is geared toward prostitution. The program takes up to five women at a time for up to one year. The recruits mostly come from jail or from outreach on the streets.

Life there, by design, is highly structured. Men are not allowed on the premises. The women can't have their children with them. They must share chores, hold down a job and contribute 30 percent of their income to the house. Phone calls are restricted. There is a 10 p.m. curfew. They must attend nightly Prostitutes Anonymous meetings.

PA is a national 12-step recovery program like Alcoholics Anonymous, with one exception: the members of PA believe the sex industry is their drug. They believe that prostitution in and of itself is an addiction.

"Prostitution is a behavior addiction," explains Richard, a former male prostitute and the only man who's a member of the local PA chapter. "You are more addicted to the lifestyle, power -- validating yourself with feeling loved, in control, feeling wanted. It's also the running-gunning part -- the excitement of the score and the chase. It's all the same elements of drug addiction.

"I've been a sex addict ever since I was a child. It made prostitution much easier. I knew I was a sex addict long before I knew I was a drug addict. People who are constantly sexually oriented -- they're addicts, and I have been an addict all of my life. Those things are very hard to recover from. That's why PA is my most favorite meeting."

Paula Wainright, a recovering prostitute and resident supervisor of DIGNITY House, describes an addiction as insane behavior that ignores consequences. Wainright recently had a mastectomy. She explains that when her body was a commodity, the surgery would not have been possible.

"My body is not who I am," she says. "I would not have said that a few years ago. I'd have let it [cancer] kill me before I'd have let them take my breast."

Wainright explains that PA offers a safe place for prostitutes to discuss their pasts. All those who attend PA, including its one male member, have worked the streets and share similar experiences.

"What is so great about PA is that when you're in AA meetings or a treatment center, you can't talk about that stuff when there's men there. It causes all kinds of problems.

"Most recovery programs are co-ed, and if you fraternize with a guy you are put on restriction," says Lori, a 35-year-old resident of DIGNITY. "Here, we're on restriction all the time. Men can't even walk through that door."

DIGNITY House, a white ranch-style home, sits in a quiet, residential neighborhood in central Phoenix. After a dinner of cabbage stew, residents of DIGNITY House sit on the back porch, chatting and filling up the ashtrays; cigarettes are one vice they're still allowed.

All the women have war stories to tell -- stabbings, beatings, rapes -- and all of them stayed on the streets despite the consequences. The details of their stories differ, but they share common threads. Nearly all of them experienced childhood sexual abuse, and all these women turned to prostitution for drugs, men or both. For most, DIGNITY House is not their first attempt to get off drugs and out of prostitution, and it may not be their last.  

Of the 21 women who were lucky enough to get into DIGNITY House, 13 are considered success stories -- but that doesn't mean they didn't relapse at least once. Eight of DIGNITY House's graduates are back on the streets, Mitchell says.

Cathy, the newest resident, can't sit still. She shifts her weight, throws her legs over the side of a wicker armchair and picks herself up to sit cross-legged. Her voice wavers and cracks, her movements are sporadic, her hair, flat and lifeless, is plastered to her face. She has been here nearly two months and still marvels about having a place to sleep.

"I know where I'm gonna wake up," Cathy says. "And instead of waking up sick from dope, I'm gonna have a cup of coffee, look at the news, put on clean clothes, take a shower. Feel like a real person . . ."

Mindy is a graduate of the program who now lives on her own and works at the house. She sits with her hands folded in her lap and speaks quietly, choosing her words cautiously. She says that even though DIGNITY gave her the skills to survive in a straight world, it is still an uphill battle. A relationship with a man is something she is not yet ready to attempt.

"I have to learn to deal with things, and sometimes I don't deal with them so well," says Mindy, who has slight facial paralysis; she was shot in the mouth while having sex with a man who picked her up on the street. "I'm not going to say I don't struggle. . . ."

DIGNITY HOUSE residents go through an intake process, where their needs and motivational levels are assessed. By the time the women are ready to ask for help, many of them have severe medical problems. Crack addicts have respiratory problems, heroin addicts have abscesses. Sexually transmitted diseases are rampant. Many are missing teeth, either from beatings or neglect. Residents get teeth, identification and medical attention.

Next, DIGNITY helps with life skills. A woman who has been living on the street tends to lose touch with basics such as eating with a fork. DIGNITY focuses on the fundamentals of personal hygiene, as well as skills like creating a résumé, balancing a checkbook and getting a job.

"Other programs don't teach you just how to function -- like brushing your teeth in the morning, making your bed, things that were neglected so much," explains Lori.

Lori tried more than 20 different rehab programs before landing at DIGNITY House. She says DIGNITY has worked where other programs have failed her.

But the allure of the street is always there, with a promise of oblivion, risk, fast money and a false sense of power.

"I know I don't want to go back where I came from," Mindy says. "I just don't pick up and don't get picked up. Sometimes I literally hold on to my ass."

It's a Friday night. Betty Jean Lopez and her husband, Manny, are cruising streets off Van Buren in a white Mazda van bearing a bumper sticker that says, "To thine own self be true." These two are no strangers to the street life. Betty is a veteran prostitute; her husband, a pimp.

A petite woman of 43, Betty has shoulder-length dark hair and bright red fingernails. Forty-year-old Manny, her husband of 10 years, is a loud, barrel-chested man with a mustache and sleeves of tattoos. Together they have four children.

For years, Betty worked the streets alongside her husband with a singular mission: turn enough tricks to keep herself and Manny high on crack cocaine for the evening.

"The three H's," Betty says. "Hungry, homeless . . ."

"But always high," Manny chimes in.

He says it's not difficult for a pimp to recruit his harem.

"You don't have to tie a girl up -- you just keep her high."

Tonight, Betty has a different mission. She is spreading the word about prostitution recovery.

Betty sees her first mark in front of a Circle K. Vanessa is bent over, sifting through the dirt that covers her dingy tennis shoes and bobby socks. Spindly legs lead up to a miniskirt and low-cut blouse that reveals the only part of her that isn't sagging: a hiked-up pair of fake-looking breasts. Her roots are black, and bleached, processed hair sticks out like bits of straw. She drags her hand across her lips, smearing hot-pink lipstick down her chin. As Betty approaches, Vanessa smiles a sparsely toothed grin and offers some beef jerky.  

Hungry, homeless, but always hospitable.

Vanessa's eyes are vacant. It is hard to imagine she is someone's daughter. Even harder to imagine that someone would pay to have sex with a toothless woman who is drooling on herself. They will.

Betty looks Vanessa over and observes that the more decrepit a hooker looks, the more they get picked up. Johns see vulnerability; they see a weakness, they see a five-dollar blow job.

"Are you getting a little tired of being out here, love?" Betty asks.

"Oh, we all do, don't we?" Vanessa replies as she swaggers up Van Buren.

"You can see how far I have come, there is some stuff out here for you," Betty continues. "There's a program -- there's a house for women just like us called DIGNITY House. Have you heard of it?"

Vanessa replies that she has. Realizing she is being proselytized, she quickens her stride. Betty tells her how awesome recovery is and offers to bring information about the DIGNITY program.

Vanessa keeps moving.

Betty heads back to the van and bemoans what five years on the street will do to a person. When Vanessa landed here, she was a beautiful, blond bodybuilder. Betty admits that she once looked like Vanessa does tonight.

"When I got arrested, I kid you not, I had open sores, I had full-blown hepatitis C, I was yellow and I had this green fungus on my head," Betty says. "The cops were like, 'What do you have? We're not touching you.'"

Manny is ambivalent about Betty's crusade. He says his wife is messing with the hooker's bread and butter -- and her pimp is going to want his money. Manny never considered himself a tyrant. He and his girls had "a mutual understanding."

"I traded them a fair service for a fair price," he says of his wife and the other prostitutes who ran with them. "If you ask me, I was just somebody who protected the females."

It's what Betty calls the "Captain-Save-a-Ho" mentality.

"Manny believes that women are very helpless and he can help them," Betty explains.

Delusions of adequacy abound as Manny cruises his old stomping grounds.

"I was made for this line of work," Manny says. "Any man with a decent personality has limitless possibilities on the street. I miss the sense of control."

Yes, the streets hold certain nostalgia for the couple. This used to be their home, and when they left, they left behind a family.

"We want to see if we still know anybody out here. But it's dangerous for us to do it," Betty says.

The streets are full of temptation for recovering addicts.

Betty has been a recovering prostitute on and off for four years and wants to convince women who still sell their bodies that there is a better way. Betty has held down a straight job for nearly a year, and she plans to go back to school. She serves as a sponsor for other women in PA and AA, and her phone rings incessantly with calls from newcomers. She's come a long way from her days on the streets.

Betty and Manny met at a Cocaine Anonymous meeting in 1989. They moved in together and almost immediately started using again. Prostitution was Manny's idea, and Betty doesn't blame him. Betty says in the beginning she absolutely enjoyed it.

"It was so great," Betty says. "I loved being wanted -- the attention."

It was easy for Betty to make money. If she was arrested, Manny simply bailed her out, and she'd be back on the street the next day.

Betty's recoveries and relapses have coincided with Manny's comings and goings. The pair went to jail in 1996 for burglary.

That's when Betty met Kathleen Mitchell. She went through the DIGNITY classes in jail, and when she was released, Mitchell was waiting for her at the gate. She took Betty to a domestic violence shelter, and Betty got a real job.

"I've done accounting off and on for 20 years, so I have something to fall back on when I get clean," Betty says.

Betty worked, saved money and collected items that could be pawned. By this time, DIGNITY House was opening up, and Mitchell offered Betty a job working at the house. Betty accepted the job on a Friday, but by Monday she was back out on the streets with her husband.

They disappeared to the streets until November 1998, when they were arrested on drug charges. Again, Betty was reunited with Mitchell, who this time offered her a spot in the DIGNITY House residency program.  

"I never wanted to go there," Betty says. "I didn't want the rules, I couldn't see my husband or have a relationship."

Instead, Mitchell took Betty into her own home. Betty says she was so strung out that she struggled to tie her shoes and form sentences. Mitchell served as her mentor as Betty put her life back together once again.

"If it weren't for Kathleen, I would not have the dignity, the self-respect and the pride that I have today," Betty says.

She lived with Mitchell for 10 months, until Manny got out of jail and the pair moved to Glendale.

Betty says she feels strong in her recovery, but she is beginning to see the unhealthy aspects of her relationship with Manny, and the reasons why they shouldn't be together.

"When we first talked about splitting up, I thought, 'You know, I'm gonna go get some rock, because if I bring it home he'll stay.'"

Betty vacillates between knowing he should leave and wanting him to stay.

"I have 'until death do us part' tattooed on my back. One of us is gonna have to die, because we are parting," Betty says.

The nature of this dysfunction is not news to Kathleen Mitchell.

"Without a man in her life a girl can do well," says Mitchell. "Betty did really good while he was not in her life.

"Prostitution is set up for men, it is designed by men to keep a certain amount of women at their disposal. They say prostitution is the oldest profession -- I say it's the oldest oppression. Being a pimp is the oldest profession."

Betty embraced the role of victim. She was happy to let others blame Manny for her lifestyle; she didn't have to take responsibility for her own relapses.

"Kathleen's perception is that it's the man's fault and if it hadn't been for Manny I wouldn't have done it. I don't think so," Betty says. "Eventually, I would have done what I did to keep my dope habit going. I don't blame Manny."

Manny doesn't blame himself, either, though he does say prostitutes don't control the market on guilt and shame.

"Here's the woman that I love, the woman I married, and I'm allowing her -- encouraging her -- to go out and sell her body so I can get high. Don't you think that deals with guilt and shame?" he asks.

Besides, prostitution is risky for men, too.

Manny illustrates this, pointing to a group walking through a McDonald's parking lot. A young man, the pimp, walks in front of a woman in a tight black dress. She stumbles along, pulling up the spaghetti strap that slides down her shoulder. The john, a middle-age balding man in a sport coat, follows the entourage into a motel. Manny drives to the corner and points to another man who is watching the motel from the street. He says the man is working in conjunction with the prostitute and the pimp -- watching for the motel light to turn on so he can burst in and rob the john. Betty says this is a common scam that she and Manny pulled all the time.

"We ruined a lot of lives," Betty says.

Dr. Patrick Carnes, a sexual disorders specialist at The Meadows in Wickenburg, treats all kinds of prostitutes -- from streetwalkers to high-priced escorts. He explains that when hookers say they are hooked on the life, it can be a cocktail of multiple addictions. Carnes says pleasure, drugs, untreated childhood trauma and sexual compulsion all are part of the mix.

"It's really a package. It is the danger and the risk. In that sense they are no different than the CEO who has put the whole corporation at risk. . . . It's about power," Carnes says. "I hear this a lot: 'When he takes out his wallet, I know I've won and I'm disgusted that he is so weak.'"

Carnes says prostitutes aren't merely women who lack self-respect, and their johns aren't simply men who lack character. There are many ways that people involved in all aspects of the sex industry get hooked, and it is possible for both men and women to get better.

"If they have good help, it is very possible to recover," Carnes says. "The biggest problem is lack of resources."

This is something Kay Jarrell knows all too well.

"If a woman comes to me and wants to get clean and sober, I'm like, 'Oh, shit. Now what?'" says Jarrell, an outreach nurse and manager of Healthcare for the Homeless, a division of the Maricopa County Department of Health. "Finding a place for a woman is not easy, especially if you're trying to get off drugs."  

Jarrell says the lack of residency programs means the difficult part begins when a prostitute makes the decision to quit. She explains that saving someone from the streets is a delicate dance, and even one misstep can sabotage the process.

"When I get a lady who tells me she's ready, it's not something she just decided, it's something she's been thinking about for a while," Jarrell says. "And you've got to strike while the iron is hot."

This is difficult when there is virtually no immediate place for them to go.

Jarrell monitors a group of prostitutes who camp near 35th Avenue and Buckeye Road.

One of them is Kim, a 44-year-old woman with pale blue eyes, brown hair and no teeth.

When Kim was arrested in Texas several years ago, she got sober and wrote Jarrell eloquent letters from jail, asking to get into a recovery program. Jarrell got her a bus ticket to Phoenix and managed to bypass the waiting list for a recovery center. Unfortunately, Kim arrived on a Sunday and had to wait until Monday morning to get into the program. By then, she had succumbed to the streets.

But Jarrell continues to take care of Kim and her street family, bringing them food, blankets, socks, antiseptic, Tylenol and a dry sense of humor.

"I ought to do a commercial," Jarrell says. "Nine out of 10 heroin addicts prefer Tylenol. Tylenol: when heroin just doesn't cut it. Why waste your heroin on a headache?"

Mama Linda, Betty and Kim are Jarrell's regulars. All three have heard of DIGNITY House, but say they aren't ready to leave the streets, and even if they were, DIGNITY has no openings right now.

"I'll go when I'm ready," Linda says, "but I love it out here."

She lives in a makeshift tent. The smell of urine and garbage is thick.

Kim has been having chest pains and says she needs to go to the hospital for a chest X-ray. She finishes smoking the rock left in her pipe before climbing into Jarrell's county van for the trip to a medical center.

Jarrell notes that it's unfair to promise these women that their lives will be better if they get sober.

"Sobriety sucks," Jarrell says. She explains that taking away a person's drugs and putting them in a 12-step program is not a smooth process. Neither is looking for a straight job when you have been a prostitute since childhood. With no skills and no high school education, prospects look dim.

"Right now, given the options we have, it's hard for me to get real excited about the positive things in these people's lives," she says. "I think what we forget when we take people off the street is people get used to that high. Not just the drug-induced high, but these ladies run all over the place. It's fast-paced action here. It's exciting, it's on the edge. They are used to, probably from childhood, being on the edge -- dodging this and that. You take people out of that and put them in a routine -- we know they find that boring. I'm sure they are nostalgic."

For this reason, Jarrell says it's important to have accommodations ready when a woman wants to come off the street. However, the waiting lists are long and space is limited. The Adult Rehabilitation Center, a six-month recovery program for substance abusers, has 92 beds for men, but only 12 for women.

Kim lies down in the back seat, saying she doesn't feel well. She says she's sick and tired. She is getting too old for this line of work.

Jarrell has heard it all before but listens anyway, waiting for the moment of desperation that precedes a woman's escape from the streets. Perhaps Kim is almost ready. She no longer works the streets. The streets work her.

Kathleen Mitchell sits at her table during the vice night roundup and frets about society's view of prostitution.

In terms of social programs and community education, Mitchell believes prostitution is where domestic violence was 15 years ago. She wants to educate people about the reality of prostitution as she knows it. She sits on a crime-prevention group for the Van Buren Street Association, alongside members of the business community and law enforcement officials. Mitchell says she works well with the PD, but prejudices of prostitution prevail.

"They believe women are more of the problem," Mitchell says. "They don't quite get it yet that if they get rid of the men customers, the women aren't going to be there because the money won't be there."  

On vice nights, the PPD goes undercover to catch johns. Five female decoys are dressed as hookers. Detective Marlene King sports a mouth full of braces, making her look younger than her 28 years. She could be a student at Any College U.S.A., wearing a gray tee shirt, cut-off jean shorts, tennis shoes and a flannel shirt tied around her waist. King, who has caught two johns this afternoon, jokes with her male co-workers about the drunk guy who offered her five dollars for sex. The male officers say he was perfectly sober.

Detective King says she likes her job. Her reasons are similar to those the real working girls cite: it's exciting and full of action.

"I'll never go back to a desk job if I have the choice," she says.

Wired for sound, King stands on the corner waiting for a john to pull over, nod or call her to the car. Working the johns is more labor-intensive than arresting the prostitutes -- it requires backup, electronic equipment and a booking area. Commander George Richards explains it takes 20 to 30 people -- and money.

"We try to be as hard on the men -- we understand supply and demand," Richards says. ". . . catching the johns has to be more of a planned operation."

Yet the attitude prevails that eliminating the women will solve the problem.

"It's a seller's market," King explains. "If the women weren't out here, why would the men come?"

The men would go somewhere else, which, as Lieutenant Larry T. Jacobs explains, is the police department's realistic objective.

"Prostitution is a problem that's always been with us," Jacobs explains. "We would like to take the visual component out of it. What happens behind closed doors is one thing -- it's when they get out on the street and flaunt it. It degrades the area and property values go down."

Mitchell is one of the few at vice night who view prostitutes as victims rather than suspects. She realizes she is in the minority, and that changing the sex industry is an uphill battle.

"We have such a long way to go," Mitchell says. "We've thrown a pebble in the water."

Contact Amanda Scioscia at her online address:

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