News & Politics » Feature

Unhooking

Where can a prostitute turn when she wants to come in off the street?

by

comment

On Monday Champange goes to work in a basic black dress and a long, loose-fitting white jacket, her black heels clicking briskly into the courtroom. At the front of the room near the bench where misdemeanor cases are being heard is a locked door; Champange waits, patient and self-assured, until it is opened for her. The door leads to a hallway and another locked door. It, too, is opened, and she stands in the doorway.

There are five women in the lockup. It's a small, dimly lit room, bare except for two narrow wooden benches, where the women sit. When the door opens they look up, expressionless, blinking into the bright hallway light.

"Good morning, ladies," Champange says. "I'm from Genesis House." Her face is soft and warm, her voice gentle and firm, earnest. She looks at the women and they look at her, and she knows she speaks across a great chasm, carved by the accumulation of many locked doors. But she speaks as if there is no gulf between them, as if her words will be heard and acted upon. Because she has been there, on the other side of the chasm. And she crossed it.

"Genesis House is a place that helps prostitutes," she continues. "There are places that help alcoholics and drug addicts and battered women. Well, prostitutes need help too. It is a sickness just like these other things--I know all about the problems you have. I worked the streets too."

The expressionless faces remain expressionless, but something has changed. There has been a slight shift of energy between Champange and the women she's talking to. They seem to be listening in a new way.

"At Genesis House you'll find someone to talk to. You can get counseling. And every Wednesday night there is a support group where you can get information and share your experiences with people who understand what you're going through."

Champange offers to talk to the women individually outside the lockup about their court cases and about Genesis House. Three of them express interest. But first she passes out booklets and talks to all of them about AIDS.

Champange (a nickname--pronounced "champagne"--"That's how I spell it") is the first "graduate" of the four-year-old Genesis House to become part of its court outreach/advocacy program. She is the first former prostitute in Chicago, in the entire midwest, to have gone through an intensive rehabilitation program and come out working to get other prostitutes off the streets. She has been visiting the courts daily since January.

"And, oh, she does a wonderful job of it, just wonderful," says Edwina Gateley, the feisty Genesis House founder, who dreams of the day when there'll be a whole army of Champanges reaching out to prostitutes in courtrooms all over the city.

For now, however, the Lakeview-based Genesis House is represented every day in two Chicago courts, a small but important foothold that it has struggled to reach and maintain. "Not every judge, not every prosecutor or policeman understands the value of what we do," says Gateley. "They say they know the gals and yes, on a certain level they do. But the last thing these women are going to say to them is 'I feel lonely, I'm frightened, and my father raped me when I was six years old.' At Genesis House we see that other side of them. Because we believe that every prostitute has a story, and 95 percent of the time it begins with sexual or physical abuse in her childhood."

Diane is 21 years old. She is a fair-skinned, gentle-looking blonde. Pretty, with the added glow of expectant motherhood. This will be her second child, and it is due any day now.

When Diane was four, a male baby-sitter raped her and her one-year-old brother. She didn't tell anyone. When she was six her mother attempted suicide, and gradually it fell to Diane to take care of the house. At eight she was beaten and raped by a friend's stepfather. It was about that time that her own father started beating her.

"My mother would just sit there and watch him beat me," she says. "She would say, 'I had your father before I had you.' My father came first to her."

When she was 17, her father beat her until she had two black eyes, eight broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, and a broken thigh bone. He was a senior master sergeant in the Air Force, stationed near San Antonio, Texas, and his superiors knew he was abusing his daughter. But they told him they'd spent too much money training him to lose him. He would have to get rid of her.

"My parents drove me to a truck stop and gave me to a truck driver, who they didn't know. They said, 'Take her wherever she wants to go. She'll do anything for you.' My 14-year-old brother was with us. He stood there and cried." Diane began using her body to get food and cigarettes, and eventually for money.

Diane pauses and looks around the living room at Genesis House, where she has been staying since January. It is a cozy, friendly room, crowded with comfortable furniture, a television, and a bubbling aquarium filled with tropical fish. On one side there's a fireplace and above it a large painting of two hookers. Brassy and brazen in bright, tight-fitting dresses, they look out at the world from a shabby city doorway.

"I suppose that's there to remind us where we've been," says Diane, looking at the painting. "And that's OK. I don't think I would change anything about my life. If I've survived all this I know I could handle anything. It's made me the person I am."

Six months after her parents abandoned her, Diane was knifed and left for dead at a Fort Worth truck stop. She never saw the attacker. "The guy I was waiting for didn't show up. Someone grabbed me and stabbed me and cut off my hair. I needed 20 stitches in my neck, 15 stitches in my side." She had some friends among the truckers. "They told me I didn't belong there, that I was too young. They sent me to an aunt in Oregon."

There is a strange and sad dynamic between battered children and their parents. The children never fully, consciously believe that what is happening to them is not, somehow, their fault. They keep going back to the parent--and later the pimp or other abusive partner--in search of affection, approval, just the tiniest bit of affirmation that they are not all bad.

Diane left Oregon to look for her parents. She found them, transferred now to an Air Force base near Champaign, Illinois. They didn't want her. She moved in with a man she'd met on the bus and had his baby. There was a brief thaw between Diane and her parents, which ended with them taking her to court, accusing her of having been a hooker and of being an unfit mother. They won temporary custody of her child and soon afterward left the country, headed for an Air Force base in Germany. Diane wound up in Chicago.

"I came up here for a guy I met. He sold me to a pimp for $500 worth of cocaine. I worked the streets for five or six months, and I started drinking severely. I could drink a fifth of whiskey in 45 minutes."

The house where she was living was raided by police looking for a 15-year-old runaway girl who was also living there. "The police told me I was too pretty, too intelligent to be a hooker," says Diane, who had been an A student in high school. "They helped me get into an alcohol treatment center. Someone there told me about Genesis House."

We must all see ourselves as part of this earth

Not as an enemy from outside who tries to impose his will on it.

We who know the meaning of the pipe

Also know that being a living part of the earth

We cannot harm any part of her without hurting ourselves. --Lone Deer

--from a wall hanging at Genesis House

"There are at least 12 women who are now working good jobs because of Genesis House," says Edwina Gateley. "We've saved the city thousands of dollars."

The small, second-floor counseling room at Genesis House is furnished in earth tones. A batik flower blooms on one wall. Another wall holds a woodland scene and the Lone Deer hanging. In one corner propped up against a wall there's a massage table, folded up, waiting for its next client. Some of those this table serves have never before been touched in a nonabusive, nonsexual manner.

Gateley, 44, sits on a sofa in this room that she helped create, her hands wrapped around a large mug of coffee. She is wearing a modest, light blue sundress and on a chain around her neck, a simple silver cross.

"The average cost of arresting a prostitute is $2,000," she is saying. "That includes the police officers' time, the jailer's time, the paperwork, the court work--for that amount of money we can give a prostitute two months of rehabilitation."

In terms of counseling, outreach, and rehabilitation programs that help women find shelter and develop long-term goals, Genesis House is unique in the midwest. "You can count on one hand the number of organizations in this country that do equally intensive work," notes Gateley.

Gateley believes that besides rehabilitation there is only one sure cure for prostitution: lack of demand. But that's not a cure she has much hope for. She smiles, remembering that one of her earliest supporters when she began this work five years ago was the madam of a north-side brothel. "It was a beautiful thing. She gave me $100 a month. She used to say, 'Don't worry, Edwina. You won't put me out of business. As long as there are men around there will be prostitution.'"

Punishment, Gateley most emphatically believes, is not a deterrent to prostitution. It is a subject that makes her very angry. "It's a stupid society that criminalizes prostitution," she says. "Using the same logic we should criminalize boxing. Take away all the paranoia about sex and what a prostitute is actually doing is abusing her body for money. A boxer abuses his face. With a prostitute it's lower down. But what's the difference?

"Jailing prostitutes is a very superficial way of dealing with a social problem. It's part of a stupid, masculine system that admires sexual prowess in men, but which regards sexuality in women as evil, dirty, and shameful. It says the way to get these women is to punish them, teach them a lesson.

"We talked to one woman in jail. She was 21, but she had a beautiful baby face. She looked like she was in high school. And she cried and sulked, and then she told us that when she was six years old her Daddy started playing 'doctor' with her. Every Saturday he played 'doctor' and raped her. Why isn't her Daddy in jail now instead of this woman who continues to do to herself what Daddy did to her all those years? Society doesn't ask this question.

"The alderman in this ward [Bernie Hansen] supports what we're doing here, but he also has his ways of punishing prostitutes. The last time there were complaints about prostitution in the 44th Ward he went out and made arrests by pretending to be a trick.

"The fact that he could do it proves that a lot of the clients are exactly like him--white middle-class men, pillars of society, many from such suburbs as Glen Ellyn, Bloomingdale, Schaumburg. Hansen used the same kind of bait to catch prostitutes that gives them their business."

For his part Hansen says that yes, Genesis House "is very much needed and they've done a great job." And he does not believe that jail is necessarily the solution to the problem. Beyond this, however, he and Gateley part ways.

"The answer is not jail. It's punishment," he says. "The punishment needs to be severe enough for prostitutes to want to find alternative solutions." This is why, he says, he worked actively with the Police Department to change the law. "We improved the law to make it more reasonable to the wishes of the community," he says. "The community doesn't want prostitution."

Under the current law, after two convictions for prostitution or public indecency (performing a sexual act in a public place) the third arrest is treated not as a misdemeanor, but as a felony. It carries a potential punishment of one to three years in the state penitentiary.

"In jail," Hansen says, "prostitutes should be taught a vocation."

"You're not going to solve anything by catching prostitutes in a net," Gateley says. "The system spends an enormous sum of money--millions of dollars--to cover up the scars and scabs instead of looking for the source of the disease. Thirty percent of the women in U.S. jails are there for prostitution. Seventy percent were first arrested for prostitution. With each arrest a woman deteriorates a little bit more. She has less chance of getting a job, of keeping her children. And if she doesn't want to go to jail there are huge fines to pay. How is she going to get that kind of money? She can't get it working at McDonald's.

"Genesis House looks deeper than the police, the politicians, the social workers, the neighbors who complain about the hookers. By conservative estimates there are 25,000 prostitutes in Chicago. Genesis House has seen 1,000 of them, barely the tip of the iceberg. If the city would take the money it spends on jailing prostitutes and give it to Genesis House. . . . Could you imagine the work we could do?"

There are things Genesis House can't do and Gateley knows this too. Its small staff of counselors and social workers offers support, hospitality, nonjudgmental friendship, advocacy. But it never promises anyone miracles. Genesis House believes that people can change and that to achieve change they themselves must do the work.

In addition to the court program, Genesis House works for its clients in a variety of ways. On the least intense level, it offers hospitality--an open invitation to prostitutes to stop by for coffee, a meal, or an informal chat. More than 200 women did so in 1986, and in the course of their visits, almost all of them asked for and received some form of help or advice. Counseling is available to those who request it, as is membership in a weekly two-hour support group, facilitated by the counseling staff. Others not yet ready for bigger commitments reach out and receive help, support, and referrals by phone. A residential program accommodates five women at a time. Last year 51 women participated in it, receiving in-depth counseling and assistance, most of them making significant headway toward understanding their problems and changing their lives.

"We're strict," says Gateley. "If she stays in the house . . . she has to really work towards getting her life in hand. If she's a substance abuser or has a chemical dependency she has to enroll in a program for treatment. She's also accountable to a counselor here who helps her with her emotional problems and a social worker who helps her with public aid and legal and medical problems. She has to attend house meetings, help with chores, and she has to get a job. She can't just sit around and watch television."

Rehabilitation is at best a long-term process. Genesis House can't deliver reformed prostitutes by the dozens to a results-oriented society. It defines success in different ways, and, as its biblically inspired name suggests, places great stock in beginnings. "For us it's success whenever a woman begins to feel better about herself," Gateley says.

"Genesis House is the best place anyone could go," says 20-year-old Susie. "There's no pressure on you except to get a job and go to school." Susie is on her own now, enrolled in a City College business training program, but she visits Genesis House frequently and last week was one of a dozen women whom staff members took on a three-day outing to the country.

"I got into prostitution when I was 17," says Susie, who was physically abused by her mother, and sexually abused by various foster parents she later lived with as a ward of the state. "Prostitution was nothing I really wanted," she says. "I didn't plan it. I did it to survive. I had a part-time job as manager of an ice cream store but I was only making $100 a week. This old man, he was really disgusting to me, used to come in a lot, and he'd hear me asking my boss for more money. One day he suggested I could make an easy hundred dollars with him. I had to drink a pint of Canadian Club before I could do it. I had to be blind."

That was how it started. After a year on the streets, Susie turned to Genesis House, also because she wanted to survive. "Prostitution scared me so much," she says. "Any time I got into a car I didn't know if it was going to be life or death. I got beaten many times, sometimes very badly. Pimps would come by and take my money; sometimes the cops would take my money too, ask for sexual stuff and threaten me. So I wanted to get out."

A counselor at the Department of Children and Family Services referred her to Genesis House, where she stayed about a year. "At the beginning I was very stubborn and hard to deal with--I had a lot of anger inside of me because of my mother."

Gradually Susie changed. "Edwina and Judy [Judy Hahn, a Genesis House social worker/counselor] are very special to me and to a lot of girls. They sit down and talk to us, if we cry, they're there. If we want to do something bad, they tell us to think about it first. Also they want people there who really want to help themselves. They don't want us to come just to eat the food."

On the whole, a prostitute's sense of self is so terrible that the burden of trying to lead a straight life puts a lot of pressure on her, observes Maria Gabriel, a psychotherapist on the Genesis House staff. "It would be like all of a sudden we discovered life on the moon and you had to go up there and live with moon people. Everything is alien and different. You don't know just the simple codes of behavior. We in our culture learn to read a lot of body language. When you can't do that everything is an effort. It's should I sit, should I stand, should I move my finger, should I not? Should I smile, should I say hello, shouldn't I? A prostitute never had any of the things we take for granted in terms of socialization. Every single step is difficult for her."

Many prostitutes, not yet ready to change their life-style, use Genesis House on an occasional, casual basis. One woman stops by for coffee three days a week on her way home from work at a brothel. That she is welcome reflects a philosophy of accepting the women for who they are, of letting them know that they have choices, and of respecting the choice that they make. It offers a sharp, positive contrast, the staff feels, to a world that does not respect them at all.

Prostitutes have no rights under the law in our society, says Gabriel. "If a prostitute gets killed there's no case. Case closed. Who cares? One woman came here from the hospital after she'd been kidnapped by a guy, taken over the border to Wisconsin, then raped and beaten up. She was released from the hospital at 4 AM. At 5 AM the police came and said she had to go to the station. They brought her back at 9 AM after convincing her that because she was a prostitute she really didn't have much of a case. They convinced her to drop the charge from felony to misdemeanor."

Finding a straight job also poses a serious dilemma. Not only does it often mean learning to live on $3.35 an hour instead of as much as $100, but few employers will knowingly hire a former prostitute. If she lies about her background and is found out later, says Gabriel, it's likely she will either be fired or sexually harassed.

Prostitutes often arrive at Genesis House during a crisis, which is ironically one of the most psychologically receptive times for emotional growth. But even then there are no guarantees.

"She's hit rock bottom and we watch her go up. For a while there's a euphoria," says Gateley. "Then we wait for the next fall. We now see that there's a pattern to it that seems to come in three-month cycles. Few people understand what is happening, that inside these women there is a deep trigger from the past which, as they struggle to change, tells them, 'You're no good. Don't make an ass of yourself. Go back to the familiar.'

"It's almost inevitable that a woman doesn't make it on the first attempt. When she comes back a second time that's progress. Her third attempt? Now we're beginning to be serious."

Diane came back to Genesis House for the second time in January, three months pregnant. After her first stay, from June to August 1986, she moved into a halfway house and got involved in an abusive relationship. The last straw came when her partner started abusing his unborn child too.

"He kicked me in the stomach," Diane says. "I decided I'd had enough of being around negative people and places. I was tired of being run over and run down, of knocking my head into a brick wall. I'd contemplated suicide, I'd come close to a breakdown."

Diane feels good about herself now and thankful for Genesis House and its staff, "the only people in the world who care about me." She attributes much of her progress to a daily group therapy program at Ravenswood Hospital and the weekly Genesis House support group. "I've had a lot of chances to talk about what happened to me," she says. "If you don't talk, it's like an open wound. It festers and gets bigger.

"I needed to work on the roots of the problem. Before therapy, I thought that I was the problem. That everyone got beaten and raped.

"I've changed a lot," she says. "I know now that it wasn't my fault my father beat me. That I don't have to keep trying to gain my parents' approval. I've learned to let my parents go. I'll make it without them. I've learned to let go of negative people and not feel guilty about it, not feel that I am doing something awful because I don't do what they want. I've learned that I can make decisions, that I don't have to be abused."

After her baby is born Diane will move to a halfway house that has facilities for children. "They'll help me get an apartment," she says. "I'll have a lot of support." She plans to devote the first two months to herself and the baby, then look for a job.

"If I hadn't heard about Genesis House I might be dead now," she says, "or working the streets."

When Edwina Gateley came to Chicago in 1979 she was already well known in her native England as the founder and head of the Volunteer Missionary Movement (VMM), a Roman Catholic-affiliated program that trains lay missionaries for service in Africa. Before starting this program, she herself volunteered under the auspices of missionary sisters for three years in Uganda, paving the way for lay people to serve as missionaries.

After running the movement for ten years she decided it was time for new leadership. "I feel that if you stay in a position of power too long you lose perspective and become too entrenched. The whole organization suffers." She chose Chicago both because it was an ocean away from the movement she'd created and because its theology schools emphasize international work. She enrolled in the Catholic Theological Union and in 1981 received a master's degree, then got the VMM started in Illinois.

The following year she retreated to a forest and lived alone in a trailer; a deeply spiritual person distressed by social injustices, she believed she could make a difference, but was uncertain which way to go. After nine months she had what she describes as a revelation that she had a mission, that she had been called by God to work with prostitutes.

"Without being a converter and all that Holy Joe sort of thing, I believe I have a responsibility to care for the disadvantaged, for those who have been rejected by society," she says. "I can't ignore injustice, pain, and poverty."

Gateley returned to Chicago and began walking the streets of Uptown at night trying to befriend prostitutes. At the outset she would go up to them and say "Hi," and they would tell her "to fuck off." She'd sit in bars for hours, nursing a soft drink. Eventually prostitutes would ask her what she was doing there and she'd say, "I don't know. I just feel I should be here." She told them she was a minister but that she wasn't there to convert them or change their minds. She was just there. She began to be known as the crazy minister.

"I didn't know what the hell I was doing," she laughs. "I look back now with wonder that I had the strength to do it. I didn't have a penny in my pocket, I had no agenda, no rationale. But I knew that if you wanted to work with prostitutes you couldn't just put up a sign on the street that said 'Prostitutes Welcome.'"

Gradually Gateley won the confidence of a few prostitutes. They took her to brothels and she would sit and talk to the women when they were between clients. After about a year of this she decided that not only she, but the women too, needed a place of their own. In the beginning it was to be a place where the women could relax, have a cup of coffee, maybe watch TV, and be somewhere they knew they were accepted and not judged because of their life-style.

Gateley found the house and convinced Catholic Charities to provide a grant to pay the rent. Community groups, churches, and individuals donated furnishings. Maria Gabriel and Su Hood, both colleagues from Gateley's VMM days in England, joined her efforts, and in the beginning they lived in the house on meager $300-a-month stipends. Since the house opened in January 1983, the staff has expanded to six. Champange, who works there part-time as a secretary in addition to her morning courtroom visits, will come on board full-time in the fall. It is a nonhierarchical organization with no bosses. All earn equal salaries that are still small, but thanks to concerted fund-raising efforts last year, the women can live on their wages now.

Genesis House receives financial support from the Catholic Church of Chicago as well as from many other sources. It is connected to the Church only in the loosest sense. "We tell the Church they have a responsibility to do this kind of work, and that we're doing it," says Maria Gabriel, who is as outspoken about social injustice as Gateley. "So therefore they have a responsibility to help us because it's part of the work they should be doing anyway."

This year Genesis House also received a $25,000 grant from the city of Chicago to develop an AIDS education program for prostitutes. The only program of its kind in the country, it was recently recommended by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta as a model program for other cities to follow.

Gateley thinks it ironic that it was fear of AIDS that finally generated credibility and support from the city for Genesis House. "Before AIDS they thought of us as a potential problem," she says. "It was 'What will the neighbors say? What will the alderman say?' Now they say, 'Thank God. There is someone who has access to prostitutes.' We're an asset now. We no longer exist at the mercy of someone's paranoia about sex and prostitutes."

Since the court outreach program began in April 1986, more than 1,800 prostitutes have heard about Genesis House in or outside the lockup. Of these, several hundred have asked for more in-depth contact or phoned the house for advice or support.

"It takes a long time for a prostitute to reach out for help," says Gateley. "One woman heard about us 17 times before she came here. Prostitutes usually don't care about anything. But there is a certain moment when they've had enough, when they feel tender inside and say to themselves maybe, maybe there is hope. We don't know when that moment will come, but we have to be there for when it does."

"It took an awful lot before I could actually admit to myself or to anyone that I was a prostitute," says Champange. She is back from court now, sipping a ginger ale in the roomy, high-ceilinged kitchen at Genesis House. Like every other room in this three-story, comfortably furnished Victorian structure, it looks and feels like part of a home, not an office or institution. "But the first time I had to talk to the women in the lockup I was able to say it. As soon as I started the talk I knew it wouldn't be complete until I told them that I had been one of them."

It's still hard for her to speak about her past, a past that, taken back far enough, includes abandonment, incest, and violence. Her mother left her with relatives when she was two months old; her grandfather molested her, an uncle raped her; and when she was 12 she saw gang members kill her 11-year-old sister. Still, she gravitated toward a straight life. She finished high school, attended college for a while, got a job at a bank, married, had two children.

The bottom fell out during her third pregnancy. The marriage ended, she lost her job, couldn't find another one, her ex-husband lost his job, couldn't pay child support. A friend told her about the streets.

"At first I thought I would do it and still look for a job," Champange says. "After a few arrests I kept telling myself I wouldn't do it much longer. But I needed the money. I was paying the bills and supporting us comfortably."

Fifteen months ago, after she'd been on the streets two and a half years, a judge in the courtroom where she now works assigned her to six months supervision at Genesis House. "The supervision program has its drawbacks," Champange says. "If a girl misses a meeting here we have to report her, and then she thinks of us as part of the system. But for me it was a blessing. As soon as I got into the program and started making an effort, all the positive things came back.

"I'm still struggling," she adds. "I just turned 29. There's still a lot I want to do, and I'm still struggling to get my life together. Court helps me a lot. I love my work. I love what I do. As an ex-prostitute I know the feeling of sitting in the lockup, of acting tougher than you are and feeling scared. I can relate to these women.

"They don't always want to listen to me. Sometimes they're nice, sometimes there's a bad apple who groans, 'Here comes Genesis House again.' I tell them, 'I'm trying to help you, so listen.' I never promise miracles. We're here to help them help themselves. If no one contacts me again, that's OK. Sometimes it takes a week, a month, two months. One woman who came to us said she first wanted to visit Genesis House three years ago.

"When I got my first client I was ecstatic. It meant someone saw me in court and it opened up a door. Now she knows there is someone to talk to." The client came back twice and sometimes phones. Champange considers this no small victory. "Once a girl tells herself that she wants to get out, she'll do it eventually."

Champange is determined to stay straight. "It's been a progressive change for me," she says. "I tell myself I'm not going to go back and I would hate to disappoint myself or others. I don't have much money now. So I'm trying to keep my word. My word is my bond now."

Diane comes into the kitchen wearing slacks and a colorful maternity top splattered with rainbows and teddy bears. She plants a big kiss on Champange's cheek. She has just come from the doctor.

"He says three more weeks," she says. "But he didn't even do a pelvic."

"He can tell," Champange smiles knowingly.

"He says I better not have the baby during the Madonna concert."

"Are you going to the Madonna concert?" someone asks.

"No, I'm not. He is." The room fills with laughter.

Champange pulls a pile of photographs from her 29th birthday party from her purse and hands them to Diane, who looks at them, then passes them to others at the table. They show a happy, effervescent Champange, surrounded by friends. The pictures continue around the table.

The visitor Champange has been talking to leaves. She walks out of the kitchen, through the dining room where another group of women is gathered, and out the door, past a garden blooming with flowers. And life goes on at Genesis House.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

Add a comment