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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008 04:58 pm

Mean Streets of Springfield

PORA offers prostitutes an alternative

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At just past seven o'clock on a Wednesday night, they head for Jamal's. New moms hugging babies to each hip, teenagers in hoodies and on bikes and small boys sporting T-shirts and shorts despite the chilly air filter down the sidewalk. Cars boom and bounce beside them, spilling their passengers into the mix.

Most aren't here to buy groceries from the 12th and Ash bodega. Instead, they trek to the northwestern corner of its parking lot, to a folding table heaped with chocolate, chocolate-chip muffins, white-powdered donuts, a vanilla-iced chocolate sheet cake and condoms.

Sally Millichamp, the case manager with Positive Options, Referrals and Alternatives (PORA), and other volunteers greet hungry eastsiders, handing them grilled hot dogs and cartons of chicken-noodle soup. In the pauses between patrons, Millichamp scans the streets.

"You see the girls walking," she says. "We try to draw them in with the food."

Each week PORA feeds families (and provides free, 20-minute HIV testing) through street outreach at Jamal's and other Springfield spots, but the nonprofit organization also meets another need. They're here for the bedraggled and addicted; they work to be a constant fixture in the lives of prostitutes.

"We can give them soup, some warm clothing, some condoms and just keep trying to talk to them," Millichamp explains. "If we can help them with one step of change and meet each person where they are — if they're injecting drugs, we want to talk to them about how to be safe, and then move on from there.

"If they're smoking crack, we want to talk to them about the safety issues. If they're ready for detox, we'd be happy to help them do that. If they're ready for treatment, we'll give people rides to treatment."

Less than a mile away, PORA provides a longer-term solution for prostitutes who are ready to recover. After they've completed detox and drug rehab, these "survivors of sexual exploitation," as the nonprofit calls them, enroll in a two-year residential program. It's one of the few of its kind in the country.

PORA hands out free condoms during street outreach.

Springfield, not a bustling metropolis by any means, sees its share of prostitution. Since opening its six-bed shelter in 1997, PORA has housed 130 recovering prostitutes. A few years ago, outreach coordinator Bernie Carver says a focus group identified 150 prostitutes in Springfield, and even today, there are more than 160 erotic service postings on Springfield's Craigslist.

And it's not just capital city men who are feeding the problem. PORA has documented incidents of johns from as far away as Peoria, Alton and Litchfield driving in to solicit women on the streets or in concealed brothels scattered throughout Springfield.

Even so, Carver says, his organization struggles to keep its doors open because of the stigma attached to clients and the lack of funding devoted to solving the problem.

"We're not a glamorous issue," he says. "We deal with things that people don't like to think about. Or people don't see this as a problem if it's not in their face."

Four women inhabit the upstairs of PORA's building on 11th Street, and seven others who have moved out and on with their lives still visit regularly for services. Carver and Millichamp talk about their clients as though they were teenagers, and in many ways, they still are.

Almost all of them, Carver says, were abandoned or neglected as children and sexually abused by fathers, uncles, grandfathers or other male relatives. He points to a popular theory that suggests sexual abuse stunts emotional and social development. When their issues weren't resolved, these women turned to drugs and spiraled into supporting their addiction with sex acts.

"There's always some trauma that hasn't been dealt with," Millichamp agrees. "I think so often people don't want to see the women on the streets as persons. 'Why are they there? They must want this.'

"But they're dealing with a lot of pain — or maybe I should say, they don't want to deal with it, so they're self-medicating with drugs on the street."

PORA staff, Sally Millichamp and Bernie Carver.

In addition to emotional damage, all of these women have suffered physical damage due to prostitution. PORA has found that most prostitutes average 10 customers each night. Carver says one client described it as being a "sexual spittoon."

"If you can imagine, even if you're madly in love with someone, you probably wouldn't even want to have sex with them 10 times a day," he says.

Most have sexually-transmitted diseases, bruises and broken bones and other health problems. Some are probably lucky to be alive after working the streets. Carver and Millichamp remember a former client who had her arm cut off and her eye put out. One was shot in the face and another escaped through the bars of a basement window in Chicago after being held hostage by a serial killer.

Carver shares the story of another woman, not a former client, but a current recovering resident. Two years ago, she was stabbed eight times by a man in Toledo, Ohio, who left her for dead in the woods. After three days, she was able to drag herself to a highway for help.

"She was only given a five percent chance to survive when she was found," Carver says. "But she did."

And she's here?

He nods.

"And doing pretty well, too."

Donna, a friendly, polite 42-year-old mother of three, sits at the wooden table in the first-floor kitchen at PORA. She looks a reporter straight in the eyes and calmly talks about one of the days she almost died.

She was traveling the country with a semi-truck driver, getting high and drinking. The pair stopped in Toledo, and because shampoo and other toiletries were too expensive at the truck stop, Donna took a city bus to a dollar store to get what she needed. A man sat down next to her, and after talking for a while, he told her he knew where she could score some dope.

It was just around 6 p.m., still daylight, when the man followed Donna off the bus, grabbed her around the neck and stabbed her in the stomach with a knife. He drug her into the woods behind the store, stabbed her seven more times, raped her and took her clothes, her purse and her glasses.

He walked on top of her (Donna thinks he must have been trying to get the blood out of her body) and buried her underneath piles of leaves and dirt. When she was rescued, she suffered from a multitude of injuries, including two collapsed lungs, and eventually required four blood transfusions. She spent the next two months in the hospital. Police never found her attacker.

Donna pulled through and returned to Illinois. But she didn't stop taking drugs. She'd been popping pills and smoking crack since she was 26 years old. She'd already been held at gunpoint, pushed out of a moving car and run over, and raped more times than she can count.

Along the way Donna sold her body to support her addiction. It was a girl in Indianapolis who first told her she could get drug money by turning tricks. She didn't want to do it, she says, but at the time, it seemed better than stealing or getting a real job.

"I don't know what it is about that drug, but it doesn't let you think straight," Donna says. "I'd be standing out on those streets. Not all the time you're picking up dates, you might stand there two or three hours before somebody finally comes along. But you're not willing to say forget it. You just stand there."

When Donna took a hit, the first thing she thought of was finding more money. Customers usually paid $20 a trick, she says — which buys about five minutes of crack. Some nights Donna "dated" 15 or more men and spent every penny they paid her on the drug.

She tried getting off the streets several times, entering rehab programs in Knoxville, Tenn.; Louisville, Ky.; and Decatur. She'd even tried coming to PORA, but before she knew it, she'd be popping pills and starting all over. She remembers walking around, she says, feeling so sad. She couldn't stop.

Six months ago, Donna finally hit bottom. She'd been staying with her oldest daughter, who was pregnant, when they got into a fight about her addiction. Donna had been wearing her daughter's shoes, but when she went to leave, her daughter asked for them back. Donna took off barefoot and went to get high.

"It had started raining," Donna remembers. "She went and bought me a pair of tennis shoes, but couldn't find me. I finally saw her, and all that time, she had been walking around looking for me. Her being pregnant, with an umbrella, crying.

"She said, 'You would rather be in the hood, than to be with me.' I'll never forget that."

Donna has been at PORA for four months — the longest she's ever been clean and sober. She counts herself among the lucky ones. After all her time prostituting, she doesn't have HIV or AIDS, and she's only had one STD.

Donna admits that it's going to take a long time to move past her mistakes. She only cries when she talks about learning to forgive herself.

"I can't blame it on anybody, because I'm the one who did it," Donna says. "I've listened to people at the meetings, and I've heard people say they've lost a lot of things. But did anyone ever get as low as I did? I was having sex all the time. I was giving blowjobs all the time. Just to get high. That's so sad."

As part of her recovery, Donna attends eight to 10 meetings, for issues such as alcohol-abuse and sex addiction, each week. PORA only requires clients to attend seven, but Donna says she needs the extra help.

Some, like the Thursday night open women's recovery meeting, are held in PORA's first-floor kitchen. Clients can also help PORA with its other education initiatives. On Mondays they host groups for boys and girls at the youth detention center, on Tuesdays they visit Helping Hands homeless shelter and on Fridays they meet with 12 female inmates at the Sangamon County Jail.

Donna also volunteers four hours each week (PORA only requires two) at Avenue Thrift Shop or St. John's Breadline. She started attending services at iWorship Center on Friday nights and wants to get involved with Bible study soon. She swims sometimes at the YMCA and talks with a counselor at Prairie Center Against Sexual Assault twice a month. She takes medicine for post-traumatic stress disorder and visits Heritage Behavioral Health Center in Decatur. Donna and the other women also choose sponsors and meet with them weekly.

"This place, they help you to slow down, but at the same time, they want you to work on yourself," Donna says of PORA. "I have been doing a lot of work on myself."

In her spare time, she likes to watch "Reba" (until it went off-air), listen to praise and worship music and have conversations about God. But, she quickly says, she doesn't like to be overbearing about religion because everyone's entitled to their own point of view.

The best thing she's done over the past four months, Donna adds, has been monthly visits to Decatur to see her kids. She even witnessed the birth of her granddaughter.

PORA helps clients get their GED or enroll in classes at Lincoln Land Community College. The organization provides transportation and gives the women Illinois Link cards to buy groceries. They take turns cooking each week and have a rotating chores schedule.

PORA visits Jamal’s at 12th and Ash; Oscar’s at Ninth and Enterprise; the Bel-Aire Motel on Sixth; and other high-risk areas during its weekly street outreach.

They aren't pressured to work, but after they've been in recovery for a while, clients can get part-time jobs. When they start earning income, they donate 30 percent to cover housing and save half of the remaining balance for the future. When they graduate from the program, PORA helps them find full-time employment and a home. The organization provides after-care services for as long as they need them.

There's also fun involved. The women went to Six Flags and on a camping trip this past summer. They've been to see shows at Sangamon Auditorium, visited the Lincoln Library and once frequented the movies at White Oaks Cinema.

Anyone who comes face-to-face with prostitution knows that some women feel it's their only option.

"Desperate people don't have anything else to sell besides their sexuality sometimes," Carver explains. "It's not something that people dream about, 'I want to become a prostitute when I grow up.' There's something very wrong with any child who says that."

Donna agrees that it's not something she went into with her eyes wide open. Looking back now, she has no idea how drugs and prostitution became her life.

"When I was a teenager, I had so many hopes for myself," she says. "I was a totally different person. You see a lot of young girls out there now. You know they didn't have the hopes of prostituting and doing drugs."

There's been a lot of success at PORA. Even though relapses are part of the process, Carver says, each one is usually less serious than the one before. So far the organization has experienced an 80-percent success rate with clients who have stayed for six months. One has even gone on to a career in public health, helping those with backgrounds similar to her own.

Donna says that her own four-month stay with the organization has been a "blink-of-the-eye." Even though she's thought of returning to her past life, her support system, including Millichamp, her sponsor and the other residents, keeps her focused.

"I'm not saying I would love to go through this again, but it's taught me to love people in a way I couldn't have loved people if I hadn't of went through it myself," Donna says. "If my story can stop somebody from doing what I did, that would be great. If it could just stop these young girls from being out there on the street."

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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