Life

A WAY OUT

Charitable programs such as Toronto’s StreetLight Support Services are helping prostitutes to build new lives—and leave the streets behind

SUSAN MCCLELLAND June 25 2001
Life

A WAY OUT

Charitable programs such as Toronto’s StreetLight Support Services are helping prostitutes to build new lives—and leave the streets behind

SUSAN MCCLELLAND June 25 2001

A WAY OUT

Charitable programs such as Toronto’s StreetLight Support Services are helping prostitutes to build new lives—and leave the streets behind

Life

SUSAN MCCLELLAND

I could make as much as $1,000 a day. But it never felt good. My self-esteem was really, really low. I was being beaten by my boyfriend [pimp] and my clients. A friend of mine was strangled-her body found dead in a parking lot. It is a dark world. I fell into it fast and hard. —Karen

The morning art class is just ending at Srieetlight Support Services, a loronto not-for-profit organization that helps prostitutes create a new life. Karen, a 23-year-old former streetwalker, is

putting the finishing touches on her assignment, a collage about what it means to her to be a woman. Despite the horrors she has seen, her project is surprisingly upbeat. A photograph of red roses and a small wicker basket are glued together at the bottom of the page. A picture of singer Jennifer Lopez in a shimmering pink evening gown is pasted to the side. And at the top of the page, “The finer things in life,” and “1 wish I had risked more,” are spelled out in differentsized letters cut from magazine ads. “I wish I had risked more with my brain—like finish school,” explains Karen, which isn’t her real name. “I didn’t have the chance, I guess.” Indeed she didn’t. When she was 11, an elderly relative sexually molested her. Since she was 14, when she left an abusive family situation in rural Ontario, Karen has worked on and off on Toronto’s streets. But luckily, life is about second chances. Her art class is part of a four-week

program that includes literacy and computer classes, job and academic counselling, budgeting and self-esteem building.

Karen is finishing her highschool diploma and she plans to attend a social work program at college in the fall. At StreetLight, she finally found what has been missing in her life to help her leave the streets for good: support. “I never really knew anyone who wasn’t in the

business,” she says. “When there is no one around you who’s healthy—well, it’s hard to find a way out of that lifestyle.”

It’s a lifestyle, though, that’s ensnaring more and more people—predominantly women, but men and children are involved, too. A recent United Nations report stated that trafficking in women is one of the fastest-growing criminal activities in the world. The global sex trade generates more than $ 12 billion a year, making it one of the most lucrative illicit industries besides the drug, wildlife and weapons trades. There are no hard Canadian statistics, but the lobby group Coalition for the Rights of Sex Workers claims Montreal alone has at least 5,000 prostitutes. Others estimate thousands of women are being brought each year to Canada from South America, Asia and Eastern Europe.

Although their backgrounds are diverse, the prostitutes share some all-toocommon similarities. In an effort to escape a troubled or economically deprived home life, they start turning tricks, get caught up in a cycle of violence and poverty and have few means of escaping the trade. But in the last six years, charities like StreetLight have been set up in Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg, as well as smaller centres, to help prostitutes start new lives. “For every five people we see each month,” says Beverley McAleese, StreetLight’s executive director, “three get out of the lifestyle.” That’s an impressive statistic, she says, given the healing they need and the stigma they carry. “Apart from being a pedophile,” McAleese adds, “saying you used to be a prostitute carries the worst condemnation.”

The father of my children drove me to the corner and dropped me off. His cocaine addiction had worsened and he wanted me to pay for it by selling my body. He was going to kill me and my kids if I didn’t.

When my first trick asked me my name, I just blurted out Brandy. I wanted to be anyone but me. The happiest day of my life was when my boyfriend went to jail. That’s when I could breathe again. — Ursula

StreetLight, the first such program in Canada, opened in August, 1995, after aToronto city councillor and the police realized that to curb the sex trade, they needed to offer prostitutes viable alternatives. The planners based StreetLight, in part, on a successful San Francisco diversion program that helps rehabilitate prostitutes’ customers. The men pay to attend so-called john school—and escape criminal charges. StreetLight took that initiative a step further and uses some of the john school fees to help reintegrate prostitutes into mainstream society. Of those who have attended San Francisco’s john school, only five per cent have been caught with a prostitute a second time.

In Ontario, the office of the attorney general agreed to allow only those charged for the first time with trying to hire a prostitute to have the offence withdrawn if they attended john school. In Toronto, johns pay $400 each and the eight-hour program includes discussions about sexually transmitted diseases; former johns revealing the destruction that using prostitutes has wreaked on their family and work; and prostitutes talking about the pain their profession causes them. Of the more than 3,000 johns who have passed through StreetLight in the last six years, only about one per cent have been charged a second time.

It’s a vicious circle. You need the drugs to do the trick, but when you are high, you’ll do more because you want the money to buy more drugs. The worst was doing a job in the bathroom of a crack house. It was all about the crack. I lost my soul. I

don’t think I can ever be intimate with someone again. I’ve used up my lifetime’s supply of sexuality. —Debbie

Originally, StreetLight offered its services only to

street prostitutes. Almost immediately, the charity broadened its mandate to include prostitutes working for escort services, massage parlours and strip clubs. StreetLight contends its clients

are victims, not perpetrators, and so, in addition to teaching basic life and job skills, it helps them build their self-esteem and self-awareness. “You have to heal from the inside out,” says McAleese. “Until the inside is healed, if there is another crisis in your life, you will continue to deal with things in an unhealthy way.” StreetLight’s two-storey, 1912 redbrick building is littered with literature on female empowerment, yoga, holistic healing and books by the Dalai Lama. “We encourage clients to listen to their intuition and find their creativity,” says McAleese. “It is a big step in their transition.”

So was I an actress?

Was I a star?

No, I don’t think so wouldn’t go that far i was there to offer myself to anyone for a price

they paid with money ipaid with my life —Ursula

A former prostitute who returns regularly to StreetLight as a volunteer, Ursula concludes the morning art class by reading her poem about how she felt about prostitution. She says when she was arrested five years ago and volunteered to go to StreetLight, she hadn’t realized how much pain she had pent up inside. But then she began penning her poetry. “My writing was my salvation,” the 32-year-old says. “The paper never yelled back or criticized me.” Ursula stopped using drugs and returned to school for a diploma in computer business. Today, the single mother of two is a customer service representative with a multinational firm. “StreetLight helps me believe that I can make my dreams come true,” Ursula concludes. “I believe in myself and where I want to be in life.”