She sold herself to strangers to support her drug habit In time, she signed away custody of her children. Nothing mattered but the drugs.
Raised in the suburbs in what she said had been a happy childhood, she ended up living in abandoned East Side houses taken over by crack cocaine dealers.
Her life seemed as if it were beyond redemption.
Now, as the Buffalo Police Department prepares to embark on a public campaign of shame against the customers arrested for patronizing prostitutes by publishing the photographs and names of johns, this 48-year-old former prostitute is sharing her story.
She turned her life around through an East Side program called Gerard Place that provides housing, counseling and life-skills training to homeless women and their children for up to two years. And she wants women who are leading lives on the streets to know there is hope.
She also wants the men who pay for sexual encounters to see that they are contributing to the problem by helping women in dire circumstances continue their spiral downward.
“Prostitution pulled me away from everything that was good – my family, my children,” she said, requesting that her name not be revealed.
Drugs, she said, were her demon. The only thing that mattered to her was having enough money to buy hits of crack.
“It eats away at your soul. You become hollow inside,” she said.
The notion that she could make a recovery seemed beyond reach, but when this woman became pregnant for a fourth time, she faced an ultimatum from the courts: Get clean or give up your baby.
The thought of a fourth failure as a mother was just too much.
She says she entered Lighthouse, an inpatient drug rehabilitation facility, in order to qualify for residency at Gerard Place. There, she says, the intensive help provided her with a way to move forward and become a caring mother, reliable employee and contributing member of the community.
David Zapfel, executive director of Gerard Place, says he worries about other women still out there in the dangerous world of prostitution.
He has heard the horror stories: Relatives selling their younger female family members into prostitution. Drugs and alcohol addiction taking over their lives. And, finally, when the women are no longer marketable for the sex trade, ending up homeless and ill, if the streets have not already killed them.
“There are a lot who have been sold into prostitution by their mothers and grandmothers who have been their pimps and come in here looking for a better way of life,” Zapfel said.
Located in a former Catholic school building and parish center at Bailey and East Delavan avenues, Gerard Place, he said, has assisted hundreds of homeless women and children who have stayed there since it opened in 2000 under the sponsorship of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious of Western New York.
The mothers come from broken lives, running the gamut from prostitution to domestic abuse. When they arrive at Gerard Place, which includes 14 apartments and additional off-site housing, they must agree to follow a strict set of rules if they hope to make a new life for themselves.
“There are curfews, rules and a requirement that each woman here have a structured 40-hour week,” Zapfel said, explaining that idle time is not tolerated, since it can lead to trouble. “This is their opportunity to develop a better life.”
Counseling and linking the women up with community services helps rebuild their lives, said Karen Kasperek, director of services at Gerard Place. “I do all the intake, and you get an idea of where these mothers’ families are coming from.”
The mothers lack even the most basic skills, such as grocery shopping to feed their children. Place that challenge on top of emotional and mental health issues, and problems can quickly escalate out of control.
“They get stressed, which can lead to the drugs, which can lead to addiction and then the prostitution to pay for the addiction, and then they’re homeless. It is very ugly. It is a vicious cycle,” Kasperek said.
The former prostitute said, “I needed a lot of validation. I had no self-esteem. I needed constant reassurance. I’d had two failed marriages. I needed to learn how to be a parent.”
She says Gerard Place provided those fundamental needs and insights, and though several years have passed since she graduated from the program, she still stays in touch with other graduates and program workers because it represents her “safety net.”
Zapfel says that many of the women earn a GED, others are set up in college courses, and all receive on-site computer training and other workforce-preparation skills so they can leave with a job or be employable.
In fact, as the former prostitute told her story, sitting in a conference room at Gerard Place where she had once been a student, she kept an eye on her watch, explaining that she had to be on time for her shift at a local manufacturing facility.
When not working, she said, one of her favorite things is to look out the window of her home and watch her two younger children playing.
That image is a vivid contrast to her past life, a decade of drug addiction, prostitution and more than 20 arrests.
To the women still out there, especially those who are mothers, she said that it’s possible to overcome the paralyzing guilt and shame, and she offers herself as proof.
“If you’re out there doing what you’re doing, you’re not home reading your children their bedtime stories, you’re not getting them up for school, and children need that,” she said.
Gerard Place has a success rate of 95 percent in placing women and their children into permanent housing and with jobs or job skills, based on criteria from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides program funding, Zapfel said.
Zapfel is proud of the former Gerard Place resident’s turnaround and that of other women who have graduated.
But still there are the streets and men willing to pay for sex and provide quick money to the often drug-addicted prostitutes. To these johns, the former prostitute offered this message for them to consider:
“I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a sister and an aunt. I am a member of the Buffalo community. I speak at Lighthouse and Gerard Place. I would ask the johns to ask themselves what if I were your daughter or I was your sister who started using drugs and didn’t come home?
“My family suffered horribly.”
Police say the dark side of this woman’s past is sadly repeated many times over, particularly when drug addiction becomes full-blown.
Expressing appreciation to community organizations trying to provide pathways to law-abiding lives, Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said:
“There are a lot of drug addicts out there in desperate situations, and these services may make a difference.”