Sad Beauty

Prostitutes get paid to give up a lot—their families, their health, their sense of self.

When Sunny disappears into the laps of two truckers, she's clocking in. Like her, the truckers crashed the night before at a Days Inn off I-40. One of them pays $80 for the good morning attention. The other forks over $100—more than the going rate, says Sunny. It's more than what those other cheap crack whores charge.

With her $180, Sunny heads to "an abandoned, beat-up, burnt-up, fucking-shit-all-over-the-front-lawn" crack house in East Knoxville where she buys her rock. She then goes back to her temporary home at the Days Inn and gets high while watching TV.

In a couple of hours, the crack is gone and Sunny thinks about going back to work. Another prostitute has told her about the "ho stroll" near the intersection of Broadway and Central in North Knoxville. She and the trick-turning friend head out around 5 p.m. It's Monday afternoon. Two middle-aged men in Ford F150s are circling Morgan and Stone Streets, just off the main Broadway strip where it's safe to brake in traffic.

The glowing tail lights of cruising Johns make this area a genuine red-light district. On the sidewalk next to Old Gray Cemetery, one of the girls out working casts a jittery gaze at passing cars. Her cheeks are painted rosy, her intentions are clear. When a white F150 pulls alongside her, she approaches the passenger side window. There she stands for a moment, before abruptly turning away. Maybe she costs too much. Maybe she's afraid of the driver and his tinted windows.

A couple of blocks away, on the edge of the Fourth and Gill neighborhood, another prostitute gets into a car. It's Sunny and she's smiling because this John doesn't want her to go to work. He doesn't want to grab her bleached hair or muscle her small frame into place. He won't leave another scar across her neck like that one John. He won't rape her and beat her into a coma like that other John. He won't turn her on to heroin like her mother. And he won't mind if she cries.

When Sunny's tears trickle on to her cheeks, they spot her makeup like raindrops hitting a dusty step. She can feel the streets pulling her down. She's embarrassed to reveal that she's only 19.

Years of heroin and crack addiction have hollowed out the spaces where most women her age store their youth. Under a caked layer of make-up, her slightly tanned white skin furrows on her brow and hangs ruefully from the corners of her eyes. She weighs 105 pounds. Her blue jeans and gold baseball jacket are dirty. Beneath a mat of short blonde hair, dark roots try to hide.

When the car passes a tattoo parlor on Broadway, Sunny hikes up her red T-shirt to reveal her belly button.

"That's where I got this pierced," she says, showing off a new navel ring. The pierced skin has yet to heal. Like Sunny, it lies there like a delicate wound pleading for attention.

While most of Knoxville looks the other way, Sunny and the city's shifting pack of street prostitutes buckle under the weight of narcotics addiction. Prostitution is just one part of their daily collapse. There are drug and alcohol programs for those in the junkie set, but nothing specifically aimed at pulling prostitutes off the street.

One day soon, however, Knoxville could offer prostitutes like Sunny a way out. If a newly-formed task force has its way, local prostitutes will have a place to go for treatment instead of tricks. They'll be able to leave their humiliating life for a new home, where each can start the day from someplace besides the bottom.

The Program

Judge Chuck Cerny doesn't know Sunny, but from his perch on the bench in General Sessions Court, he's often introduced to women like her.

"Look," says Cerny, describing the prostitutes he's encountered on the job, "we're not trying to stop Julia Roberts from having sex with Richard Gere for money. It's not like that movie. What we have here are people who fall into this very young and then turn into addicts."

Over the last three months, Cerny has met with police officers, attorneys, social service providers, and concerned citizens who've come together at the invitation of Monroe Free, head of Knox Area Rescue Ministries. Cerny says he's excited about a trip he and other task force members recently took to Nashville where they learned about an anti-prostitution program called Magdalene.

Started three years ago by Episcopal Pastor Becca Stevens, the Magdalene project has provided a unique escape hatch for 20 former street walkers. The program works like this: When a John is busted trying to solicit a prostitute, he's sentenced to something called "John's School" by Davidson County Criminal Court (see "John's 101"). He's also forced to pay a $250 fine, all of which goes to support Magdalene.

Once in the program, former prostitutes are given intensive drug and alcohol treatment. Counselors try to heal the emotional wounds left by years of sexual abuse and domestic violence. The women learn skills they'll use later when they go in search of legitimate employment.

All the while, the women in Magdalene live on the dime of convicted Johns, clustering together in group homes of their own.

"That's the beauty of it. The Johns are actually paying for the program," says Free, who's currently working with the board of his Rescue Ministries to piece together a $25,000 start-up budget for a Magdalene project in Knoxville. Free hopes Rescue Ministries will provide a support staff person for the project and locate a home where recovering prostitutes can take refuge.

With money eventually coming in from the busted Johns, Free hopes to link drug-abuse counselors at Helen Ross McNabb with social workers at Child and Family Tennessee. Like Judge Cerny, he'd like to see a coordinated effort between street cops, prosecutors, and the courts—one that creates a deterrent for Johns while funding a way out for prostitutes.

In Nashville, Magdalene now houses 10 ex-hookers in two separate homes, each inconspicuously tucked along a quiet neighborhood street. They often come to the project through an alternative sentencing program that allows them to get treatment and avoid jail time. But like jail or a rehab center, Magdalene provides the women all the basics they need to live.

"They've committed to a life without money," says Judge Cerny. "They don't have five bucks or 10 bucks in their pocket to go buy a crack rock."

Of the 22 women brought into Nashville's Magdalene project so far, says Cerny, only two have failed to recover. One relapsed and lived. The other relapsed and was murdered. Two of the women now run their own house-cleaning business. Another, who's still in the program, must cope with brain damage she suffered at the hands of a John.

"The John took a screwdriver and just jammed it in her ear," says Cerny. "We're dealing with some deep, core, evil, grisly issues here."

According to the Knoxville Police Department, says Cerny, there are roughly 120 prostitutes working local streets. Many of these women have endured some sort of sexual abuse, often by a friend or family member at a young age. And almost all of them have a substance addiction, most likely with crack.

Of all the obstacles facing those who want to start a Magdalene project in Knoxville, the grip of narcotics may offer the greatest challenge.

"We just keep arresting the same prostitutes over and over again," says Sergeant Sherri Uzzle, a KPD officer who has doubled as a working girl doing undercover stings. (One Sunday morning on Magnolia Avenue, she says, a John told her he had to hurry up and get back home before his wife returned from church.)

Uzzle says she's interested in any program that can help clear the streets of prostitutes. But she and other officers wonder if any program can pry certain hard-core addicts from their routine of selling sex for drugs.

And as the system operates now, says Uzzle, busted Johns are generally sent to Knoxville City Court where they pay a fine and leave. In order for a local Magdalene project to succeed as it has in Nashville, KPD would have to send Johns to Criminal Sessions Court where they could be ordered to pay $250 and sentenced to 8 hours of John's School.

The current system would have to change, "And I don't even want to get into that," says Uzzle. As a consequence of diverting Johns into Criminal Court, officers could find themselves spending more time in the courtroom and less time on the beat.

While setting up a Magdalene project in Knoxville won't be easy, it apparently doesn't take much to lure unsuspecting Johns in for a bust.

"I don't wear a dress," says Uzzle. The officer goes on to describe her streetwalking look as, "Nasty, nasty, nasty."

Hitting Bottom

Meet Amanda, a former junkie and prostitute who once returned boxes of her baby's diapers for crack money. She spent years trying to quit turning tricks. But time after time, the cocaine craving would return and she'd be back on the streets.

For Amanda, the sex-for-drugs cycle began in 1992 when she moved into a square brick apartment building on Magnolia Avenue and began swapping sex for crack money. She and other crackheads called her apartment building Krystal Heights because the ghetto tenement is next-door to a Krystal's burger stand.

Inside the building, a dealer cooked up crystallized rocks of cocaine in his apartment, while Amanda offered junkies a place to smoke in hers. When the money and crack ran out, Amanda would walk Magnolia, "from the Pilot to the Wendy's." Back at her apartment, Amanda's junkie acquaintances watched her infant daughter when she was out turning tricks.

"I didn't really know these people too well, so I didn't go too far," she says. Sometimes she and a John would go to a nearby park or a secluded alley near Austin-East High School. For each trick she'd make anywhere between $20 to $40, enough to buy a few hits of crack.

Sometimes the regular Johns—the older Johns who drove in from as far away as Jefferson City—would give her more.

"I'd get those old guys who could barely move," recalls Amanda. She says she didn't have much trouble with her customers until she met Tom Huskey, a regular John on Magnolia the working girls called Zoo Man.

"I took a chance on picking up somebody different and it was the Zoo Man," says Amanda, recounting her date with Huskey in 1992. Four years later, Huskey was convicted for the rapes of four local prostitutes. He was arrested for the crimes in October of 1992. Amanda's horrifying trick with Huskey occurred a month earlier in September. (Zoo Man still faces four murder charges. It's alleged that at least one of the murder victims was a prostitute.)

"He took me to the zoo and did what he wanted to do," says Amanda. "He put a knife to me. And I told him, 'Just do want you want to do and let me get back home.' He left me there naked. He drug my clothes down to the duck pond. After my experience with Zoo Man, I quit walking the streets and went back to the people that I knew, people who I'd been with previously that didn't hurt me.'"

That meant seeing both frisky retirees and fearsome drug dealers. Crack continued to drive Amanda's life, even as she bore two more children. During her days as a prostitute, which continued from '92 to 1997, Amanda also had two abortions and four miscarriages.

The Cleveland, Ohio native eventually wound up in jail on drug charges, having sold four $20 rocks to an undercover KPD officer. While locked up, Amanda tested positive for the HIV virus. She says the diagnosis has become the final push all junkies need before they can truly kick.

Last May, Amanda entered Helen Ross McNabb Center's Sisters of the Rainbow program. Where other stints in rehab failed to break crack's lock on Amanda's life, Sisters of the Rainbow has replaced the pull of narcotics with a warm embrace.

Every morning, after Amanda sends her three children off to school and day care, she comes to a ground level apartment in the Western Heights housing project. From the outside, the space could pass for a crack house. But inside, women like Amanda are leaving their crack house days behind through group therapy and peer support.

The Sisters program did not set out to tackle the problem of prostitution, but many of the program's clients share Amanda's experience. They understand that for many women, prostitution becomes a side effect of crack addiction. Add in drug charges, sexually transmitted diseases, rape, domestic violence, and the guilt that comes with swapping diapers for crack, and the burden becomes too great for some junkies to bear.

Amanda says a lot of women have to hit rock bottom before they're able to get off the rock. As for the women she knows who are still working the street, Amanda says they're in denial. They haven't admitted to themselves that it's impossible to sink any lower.

"I know if they come in [to the Sisters program], they'd be bullshitting," says Amanda. "They'd waste our time."

Revolving Car Doors

And so the cycle continues: Johns cruising the "ho strolls" on Broadway, Central, and Magnolia, picking up prostitutes, getting off, then contributing to the junkie cause before letting these women off at the nearest corner.

Jim Layne and Harold Kline, both members of the neighborhood group Concerned Citizens of East Knoxville, are tired of watching the sex and drug trade thrive in their community. When meeting with Free and other Magdalene project task force members, Kline describes the sights he routinely encounters in his neighborhood.

"This woman, she gets out of the car all bloody," says Kline. "It's not hard to see what's happening."

When the cycle begins, says Kline, there are warning signs—clues that certain girls are just steps away from the street.

"They lose weight, lose direction," says Kline. "I've been here 40 years. I've seen it happen."

Girls who fall prey to substance abuse often wind up frequenting one of the many drug houses that operate openly around East Knoxville. That's why, says Layne, "We need to do away with the drug dealers, and many of them are known. But we're not doing anything about it. And if we don't do something about the drug issue in Knoxville, we're not going to do anything about prostitution."

According to two attorneys contacted by Metro Pulse, it's the prostitutes themselves who often feel the brunt of KPD's drug enforcement.

"I represent, on the average, two women a week who are charged with prostitution or are targeted for other petty offenses such as possession of drug paraphernalia, public intoxication, or criminal trespass because the officers recognize them as prostitutes but can't catch them in 'the act,'" says one attorney, who wishes to remain anonymous because she doesn't want to compromise her ability to defend certain clients.

"I get bogus prostitution warrants all the time," continues the attorney. "The warrant will allege the officer spotted a 'known' prostitute 'flagging down cars' on Magnolia. On nothing more than that, he'll haul her off to jail, where she'll sit for 10 days before I can get her out. I rarely plead these women because the warrants are so bad the DA will usually dismiss them. I estimate half the cases for prostitution get dismissed that way."

Sometimes, reports the attorney, the warrants are solid. "This almost always involves a 'sting' where the cop is working undercover as a John. Or it involves an officer like the one who watched my client give a real-life John a blow job, waited for the John to climax, and then jumped out from his hiding place to arrest the girl. He gave the John his money back and released him. Apparently, the law in Tennessee is: If you're a woman, you have to sit in jail; if you're a man, you get a ticket and a pat on the butt."

Statistics from Knox County General Sessions Court indicate that when it comes to crimes associated with prostitution, women are more likely to be arrested than men. Between July of 1998 and January 2000, KPD filed 36 charges against Johns for patronizing prostitutes. During that same time frame, KPD filed 127 charges against alleged prostitutes—most of them women.

There is no official tally indicating the total number of Johns and prostitutes arrested each year in Knoxville. Those records are scattered in files held by both City Court and Criminal Sessions Court. (One attorney estimates that five to 10 prostitutes come through Sessions Court each week.)

KPD Chief Phil Keith has expressed his interest in helping to start a Magdalene project here in Knoxville. With cooperation from KPD and the Knox County Sheriff's Department, a law enforcement crackdown on prostitution could lead to more Johns winding up in Criminal Sessions Court. From there, judges could fine Johns in a way that benefits a local Magdalene project.

"If [Nashville's Magdalene] has been successful," says KPD spokesman Foster Arnett. "Then we're interested in looking at it."

Leaving the Game

There might be a better life out there, says Sunny, but she doesn't have the strength to give it even a glance.

"It all revolves around drugs. When you use drugs all you do is end up in jail or dead. And I know it, and I still use," says Sunny, gesturing with her hands as she shifts nervously in a car seat. "I've been in six rehabs. I've seen a therapist for the last four years. But it's not going to happen. I'm not ready."

Her weathered, teenage features drawing still, Sunny details one specific moment in her long slide into addiction. It's morning in Detroit, Mich., where she grew up. She's 15, she's lying in bed and she's in pain.

"If you don't have heroin when you wake up in the morning, it's the worst feeling in the world," says Sunny. "You feel like you're going to die. Your bones ache. You're real anxious. Your calf muscles cramp up. You throw up every time you think about it. I mean, look at my arm, I've got goose bumps 'cause I'm still going through withdrawals. You know when growing pains kind of start, well that's what it feels like."

And that's how it started for Sunny. The pain of addiction sent her in search of a remedy; one she found on her back and buried in strange laps. Now, she says she doesn't know how to escape.

"They call it the game. Prostitutes, drugs, money," says Sunny. "And when you get deep in the game, it's very hard to get out of. Very."

A host of social service agencies have tried to free Sunny from the game. But she says, "They think they know your feelings, but they don't. Like the drug use. My mom left me when I was four years old, gave me to my grandma and grandpa. I never seen her my whole life growing up. Her or my father. Now they're back in my life. And I think that's why I use drugs. I started using with my mom. My mom used drugs. I look up to my mom. I didn't have her my whole life. She did it, I want to try it. I want to be like my mom."

The words coming from Sunny's mouth begin to fray. The tears well. Then, even as she describes how her life has sunk to a chilling depth, Sunny clings to the comfort of denial. She won't admit that she's already descended about as low as anyone can go.

"I'm very clean about it. I don't do nothing without a condom," says Sunny, her voice grasping helplessly for the happy pitch it lost years ago. "I've got mouthwash in my purse and I've got wipes. I worked in an escort service. I'm not a cheap hooker or a crack whore."

© 2000 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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