One Slim Hope

Linda Womack sold herself to buy crack. For women like her on Cleveland's streets, there's only

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The women are diseased.

Take a ride on the East Side, along Cedar Avenue, deep into the East 70s, where they beckon to passing cars, with long painted fingernails and spaghetti straps slipping down their arms. One minute they're there, oblivious to carnivorous looks and little children on the sidewalk. The next they're gone. Ten minutes later, they reappear $10 richer or $10 higher, scoping traffic for another trick.

Take a ride on the West Side, along Lorain and Detroit: the ground zero of gentrification, where they're harder to spot. They work certain corners and side streets in jeans and T-shirts, until they become fixtures, like a tree or graffiti, and the neighbors know their names. The women say the money's better over here, but the disease is the same.

Nine months ago, Linda Womack had what she calls "the disease" -- a gnawing addiction to crack cocaine and no way but prostitution to feed it. Womack had known call girls since she was a teenager, so there was nothing repellent about trading sex for money until the first time she did it with a complete stranger. After that, it terrified her. But she kept doing it, even after a man held a machete to her throat. Even after she was beaten, threatened, and robbed. Even after she jumped out of a speeding car to avoid being raped.

She picked herself up off the street, unaware of the deep scratches on her face, the cracked front tooth, and the torn lip that would require multiple stitches. She ignored the blood, so high on crack she didn't even feel the pain. Minutes later -- while trying to hide the wound with a tissue -- she turned another trick.

"I didn't allow myself to be scared," says the 40-year-old mother of three. "I lived to get high, and that was my life. I had no more shame. I felt nobody cared and nobody loved me."

The market for prostitutes in Cleveland runs the gamut from high-priced call girls at escort services to streetwalkers who get paid in rocks of crack cocaine. But most who come through the criminal justice system are strung out and destitute.

It wasn't always that way.

Police and court employees remember when prostitutes knew who they were. Twenty years ago, they simply had sex for money. These days, many of the women arrested for soliciting don't see themselves as prostitutes. They have sex for crack. They appear in court dirty and disheveled, some beaten, many in the throes of withdrawal. It's not uncommon for a police officer to take a prostitute to the hospital before taking her to jail.

Many still think this is a victimless crime, and for a whore, empathy's hard to come by. Prostitutes make the political agenda only when they infringe on other people's rights, as they have on the West Side, where they've become a community nuisance in areas slated for redevelopment. They've become targets of disdain in neighborhood meetings and politicians' speeches, including Mayor Michael White's State of the City Address earlier this year.

Just as residents and politicians are calling for more arrests, however, a recent appeals court ruling has stripped police of some enforcement power. At the same time, the number of women engaged in soliciting appears to be growing, spawning an increased public health threat of communicable diseases.

But in the entire city, only Project HOPE, administered by the Cleveland Municipal Court, is devoted to treating the problems of prostitutes instead of the problem of prostitution. Two judges and the probation officers who run the program view prostitution as more of a disease than a lifestyle choice. They make available a battery of options for prostitutes -- drug rehabilitation, job training, health screening, and other services designed to help remake their lives.

Technically, judges sentence solicitors to Project HOPE as punishment. But the streets often deal a much harsher penalty -- ostracism, victimization, even death.

In the past year and a half, dozens have entered Project HOPE. Only four have graduated.

Linda Womack wants to be the fifth.

She sits at the end of two tables pushed together in Judge Angela Stokes's courtroom, along with five other ex-prostitutes. Once a month, all the women Stokes has found guilty of soliciting meet like this. Whether they like it or not, they are participating in Project HOPE.

Stokes, credited with spearheading the program, requires the solicitors to appear before her formally once a month to report on their progress. Now -- following the lead of Judge Mary Eileen Kilbane, Project HOPE co-chair -- Stokes no longer dons her robe or climbs to the bench. Instead, she joins the women at the tables. Together, they turn open court into something more like an ex-prostitutes' support group, where "they're tougher on each other than I could ever be," Stokes says.

Although it isn't a formal reporting day, six women have shown up and agreed to talk to a reporter. Womack lets a trendily dressed woman with a furry, animal-print purse dominate the conversation, but she wears an expression of strong disagreement.

"There was nothing that was making me do this stuff," the woman finally concludes. "It was me. It was all me . . . We make excuses . . . We want our husbands to beat us over the head, so we have a real good excuse to go get real good and loaded."

Womack jumps up from her chair with the insistence of a lawyer about to yell "Objection!"

"To me, any person in their right mind isn't just going to pick up a drug and just start using it," she states. "There's something to me that would lead you to it. Some type of unhappiness in your life. Some fear . . . Something has to lead you, it's my belief, to start using drugs or alcohol or prostitution."

Womack first became a crack addict. The prostitution paid for the crack. The crack numbed her pain. She started using the drug eight years ago, after being divorced by a man whom she says beat her. Remarkably, she felt she failed him. And she lost custody of two of her children in the divorce.

"[Afterward] I was working at LTV Steel, and I got mixed up with the wrong people," she recalls. "I stopped going to church. I started going to clubs every night after work. I was with every Tom, Dick, and Harry for free . . . I started by snorting $30 or $40 of narcotics the first time, and I felt it in my knees. My knees started to tremble, and I said, 'Oh, hit me again.' I never had a high like that again. I was always looking for it.

"The disease started progressing, but I was blind to it. I'd see someone out there and think, she's prostituting. Me, I just sold my diamond ring [to buy crack]. I'm better than her. That's the disease."

That was how Womack spent October 1992. By the first of the following year, the addiction was greater than her ability to financially support it. In February, she lost her job. In March, she had to move in with her mother. In June, she was selling her clothes. In August, she lost her car. By October, she was homeless.

She lived for the binges. Two or three consecutive days where she could afford to be continuously high. No sleeping. No eating. Just working and smoking until her five-foot-one, 75-pound body couldn't stay awake any longer. Until she just crashed.

After a binge in 1996, she was walking near the Greater Harvard Avenue Church of God in Christ, where she used to pick up tricks, on Harvard Avenue and East 131st, when she collapsed.

"I didn't know what was happening to my body," she remembers. "I just knew it was going to shut down. Someone stopped and took me to the hospital. When I woke up, I had machines hooked up to me. The doctor said, 'You just had a heart attack. You've been smoking crack cocaine. You're not going anywhere.' A couple of days later, these people I was using with were visiting me, bringing me cigarettes, telling me they would set me up when I got out.

"[When they released me] I was supposed to wear these nitroglycerin pills around my neck, and I was supposed to get these heart patches. They were $50 for 10. Some old guy who was a trick gave me money for the pills. I got narcotics instead."

Getting arrested in 1997 didn't stop her behavior. After serving 10 days, she went right back to the street. She got good tricks (the guy who paid her $100 for her underwear) and bad ones (the man who beat her senseless in his car). The life locked her into a frightening routine of despair, abuse, and disillusionment.

She used to hold newspapers up to her face to block the wind while she lit up her crack pipe. Sometimes she glanced at the articles. One day in 1998, she read about a woman who reminded her of herself, except the woman was trying to get clean. Womack felt jealous.

Later that year, on September 7, 1998, she was walking past the church on East 131st Street again when a pastor called out to her.

"I had just turned a trick and made some money," she says. "Pastor Smith wasn't ashamed of me. There I was, half-drunk and half-high, and he began to pray for me. They laid hands on me. I got to crying . . . They asked me if I had anyplace to go. I didn't, so they called the Salvation Army. I went there, and they cleaned me up . . . I began to work. I gained weight. I felt better."

The period of recovery lasted only three months. Recounting her relapse, Womack begins to cry. Relapse is common, consoles Joyce Simmons, Womack's probation officer, who works exclusively with prostitutes. Simmons tells Womack she's proud of her. Of the three women who started the program with Womack, Simmons says, she is the only one left.

Womack thanks "Ms. Simmons," forcing the formality of the courtesy title. It's clear the two care about each other as friends. Despite her unyielding professionalism, Simmons, an ex-Marine, has taken a special interest in Womack's welfare. Not too many other probationers just show up at her office to chat. Nor do they get excited when it's time to take a urine test. Womack says she's always eager to do it, thrilled when it comes back negative for drugs.

Right now, however, Womack is recounting the relapse, trying to recognize the feelings, the weaknesses that brought her back to a life that almost killed her.

Womack remembers missing the excitement of the street and the fast money. The old lifestyle tempted her as much as the drugs. It didn't help that she still had many men who wanted to "date" her, especially since she looked so attractive after getting clean. She refused to acknowledge that the prostitution could lead her back to drugs.

"I got Section 8 [housing], and I moved to West 55th Street and Detroit," she says. "I got my own telephone. My own bathtub. I thought, this is great. But where I moved had cocaine in the building . . . So I came in from work one day, and there was a woman who was high. She asked me if I wanted to get a hit. I had $400 in my pocket [from prostituting]. I gave her $20. I didn't have anything to use, so I used hers. I hit it, and as soon as I hit it, I felt hurt. I felt ashamed. But I didn't stop. I went through all $400."

Womack managed not to use again for a week. But the shame kept her from contacting her support network. She stopped going to church. She skipped her outpatient drug treatment program. She stayed home from work. Outside, she watched women "hopping in and out of cars, making money."

Soon she returned to being one of them.

The prostitution problem vexes Cleveland Police Chief Martin Flask.

"I think there is some anecdotal evidence to support [the contention] that the number of women who are engaged in prostitution is actually growing," says Flask, a note of defeat in his voice.

Yet police ability to arrest prostitutes has diminished significantly. So far, the rate of prostitution cases reaching court has dropped 22 percent from last year, according to the Municipal Court. In 1998, prosecutors pursued 570 cases for "loitering for prostitution," one of several charges used against people suspected of being prostitutes. In 1999, they pursued 414. Only one person faced that charge in the first six months of 2000.

That's because an appeals court in December struck down the law allowing "loitering for prostitution" arrests. After a challenge brought by the Legal Aid Society, the court concluded that the law -- which allowed officers to arrest a known prostitute simply because she looked as if she were soliciting -- was unconstitutionally vague. It determined that the law may have restricted innocent conduct.

The decision dealt a blow to police officers trying to clear prostitutes off the street. "Now we literally have to make a soliciting case in an undercover capacity against a prostitute, which is very labor-intensive, time-consuming, and difficult to do," Flask says.

The chief speaks from experience. As a vice detective in the late '70s, Flask posed as a john. He cruised the downtown streets looking for prostitutes to accompany him back to the station. Most of the prostitutes he arrested were career call girls who chose their profession "strictly for economic reasons." Controlled by pimps, some prostitutes racked up as many as 700 arrests.

Compared to vice detectives these days, Flask had it easy. Not only are prostitutes harder to arrest, they're more likely to be afflicted with a barrage of other problems, such as drug addiction, homelessness, and AIDS.

Now, police often arrest prostitutes who consider themselves drug addicts, not prostitutes. They are first-, second-, and third-time offenders who resort to selling sex because they have no other way to pay for drugs.

"Dealing with the individual prostitute has become a lot more difficult," Flask says. "It's simply not an economic issue, where a good job and a good education would divert them from a life of prostitution."

Mostly, the police aren't arresting the high-paid call girl. She isn't the one standing near the neighborhood mini-mart, propositioning the customers. In Cleveland, the impetus for a prostitution sweep usually originates with residents or politicians -- the genesis for increased patrols on the Near West Side. In certain well-known prostitution pockets on the East Side, for instance, residents are more tolerant. There, stiletto-heeled hookers still get away with waving down cars in the middle of the day.

That's not to say the vice cops don't go there. Since Gateway development prompted prostitutes to all but vacate the Prospect corridor, once downtown's prostitution row, they work all over the city -- especially Lorain, Detroit, and St. Clair.

The police aren't the only ones residents blame for the prostitution problem. Last year, residents in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood invited Municipal Court judges to a special meeting to complain about the court system acting "like a revolving door," recalls Bill Whitney, executive director of the Detroit-Shoreway Community Development Organization.

The maximum penalty for soliciting, a first-degree misdemeanor, is a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. But even the most frequent offenders rarely get that much time. Overcrowding at the Cleveland House of Corrections, also called the workhouse, prompts most judges to issue suspended sentences for prostitutes in order to reserve space for more serious offenders.

But the "revolving door" characterization isn't lost on the judges -- especially Stokes, who started Project HOPE because she kept seeing the same women in court, time and again. They violated the conditions of their probation. They skipped out on the drug treatment programs she ordered. They committed the same crimes over and over.

"When I first started, I didn't know what to do to help them change their lives," she says. "They're out there selling their bodies for one rock of crack cocaine. It has to affect you, sitting on the bench."

Project HOPE, which stands for Holistic Opportunity and Preventive Education, became a possible solution.

The program is similar to others operating in cities such as San Francisco and Chicago. But it's the first of its kind ever attempted by the Cleveland court. A similar program, Operation Second Chance, existed briefly in the early '90s. According to former board member Jackie Discenza, however, an inability to attract funding -- largely due to an indifference toward prostitutes and the program's low success rate -- killed it.

Project HOPE works like this: Judges sentence convicted solicitors to the program. They usually require a solicitor to spend time in the workhouse until room is made available at an inpatient treatment center, which could take longer than a month. Technically, the women are placed on probation, and most judges don't see them again unless they violate the terms.

Stokes and Kilbane, however, keep a closer watch. Participants on their dockets must see a probation officer once a week and come to the Justice Center for compliance docket sessions once a month for a year. And that's just if they're complying with the terms of their probation. If they stray, the judges see them more frequently. Throughout the year, the court helps the women obtain access to other social services.

The half-dozen convicted solicitors who granted interviews all praised the program. Unlike many women who come through the justice system, they all seemed genuine about leaving the life. Many who get sentenced to Project HOPE either drop out or pretend to be cooperative, prostitutes say, just so Stokes will order them to a treatment center instead of jail.

The judge says her Christianity drives her advocacy for people trying to escape drugs and prostitution. But some have criticized her for going too far. The judge drew jeers, for instance, after a newspaper article accused her of holding an evangelical-like prayer session in her chambers in 1996. Stokes says the article sparked an investigation by the Cleveland Bar Association. She contends that a preacher, a prostitute, and a legal aid attorney did meet in her chambers and may have prayed together, but she wasn't present.

Stokes says the bar association found no impropriety. As a matter of policy, the bar association won't confirm or deny whether a grievance was filed. If it had found that a grievance had merit, however, it would have filed a formal complaint with the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline. The board had no record of any complaints being filed against Stokes.

"I'm not going to hide the fact that I'm a Christian, because I am," she says. "But I do not impose that on anyone."

Stokes's openness about her Christian faith doesn't prompt nearly as many grumblings as her personal style. Some who work with the program have said she wastes other people's time and resources on lost causes, instead of focusing the court's efforts on people who want to succeed.

"I feel like, if this is your choice and this is what you want to do, you're not going to take a defendant and make them into a churchgoing, high-school-educated person," says Judge C. Ellen Connally. "It kind of irritates me that I might have somebody on a petty theft or two or three petty thefts, and they need to go [to the workhouse] for 180 days; then you've got Stokes holding up beds, with somebody waiting for a treatment program."

Stokes believes it's right to give drug treatment to whoever needs it, regardless of whether they are grateful for the chance to get clean. It's the system that needs to change to accommodate the growing number of addicted criminals, she maintains, not her style of adjudicating.

"You're addicted. You don't want any help, so I'm just going to let you go back to the street addicted?" she asks, incredulous. "We have practically a crisis situation with the number of people who are addicted who come before our court. Are we just supposed to bury our heads in the sand?"

To Robert Lewis, who has represented many prostitutes in 27 years as a Legal Aid attorney, Stokes seems well-intentioned, but many prostitutes don't share her values and don't want her meddling in their lives.

"There are people who need a momma, and they do well [in her program]," he says. "But some people just say, 'Give me my time. I want to be a ho. I'll get off the streets in my time.'"

Linda Womack appeared before Judge Stokes for the first time in February of last year.

"I thought she was the meanest, cruelest judge I'd ever seen," Womack recalls. "Nobody liked her. She was a mean judge, and she always made people come back to court."

Stokes remembers Womack being shy and embarrassed, speaking only in a stream of stuttered sentences. Womack eventually pleaded "no contest" to one count of soliciting. Still, the judge thought Womack was sincere about getting off drugs, so she suspended $800 of her $1,000 fine and 157 days of her 180-day jail sentence. She placed Womack on probation for two years, referred her to counseling, and ordered community service.

In April, Womack failed to appear in court, and Stokes issued a warrant for her arrest. In August, she was arrested again for loitering for prostitution, but prosecutors dismissed the case. She proceeded to solicit throughout the spring and summer.

Then one October day, Womack was walking down West 65th Street in the rain. Wet, tired, and desperate for a trick, she wondered whether to get into the suspicious car that pulled up next to her.

"My friend told me, 'Don't go with them,' but I turned around and got in the car with them anyway," she recalls. "We drive in the back of the McDonald's parking lot, and there's all these vice cars, all these women. It was like a reunion. I'm taking tubes and stuff and throwing them out of my shoes. It was so crazy. I looked at Marilyn [a friend], and I said, 'Marilyn, I can't do this anymore. I'm glad I'm arrested.'"

Later, in front of Judge Stokes once again, Womack asked for inpatient drug treatment.

Suddenly Stokes didn't seem so mean anymore. She agreed to send Womack to treatment, once a bed became available. Stokes made her wait in the workhouse.

Womack remained locked up for 45 days. At the workhouse, she attended a rehabilitation program called Center Point. During the times she wasn't in group sessions, she passed the time copying the Bible onto notebook paper.

In December, Womack finally got into a residential treatment facility for women, Orca House, where she continued to battle the disease.

"I had long nails in Orca House," she says. "I still thought I was all that. [A counselor] told me, 'You need balance.' She told me to mop the kitchen and wash the dishes. I had five chores when everyone else had one. I thought she was the meanest person. Then one day she told me, 'You're recovering.'"

In February, one year had passed since Womack appeared in front of Stokes for the first time. The judge was heartened by her progress. In one year, the shy, stuttering prostitute was suddenly exhibiting boldness and confidence. Womack was speaking up in her groups and becoming her own advocate in the courtroom. She was also working at a soul food restaurant, Victor's, on East 93rd, where co-owner Ora Gildersleeve calls her "my right hand."

Womack calls Gildersleeve one of God's "disciples," a person put in her path to help her find her way out of addiction and prostitution.

Today Womack seems full of religious inspiration, but still gives the impression, at times, that she's clinging desperately to her hard-won sobriety. Every month, at Stokes's compliance docket meetings, Womack sees herself in the newcomers, dressed in light blue prison suits, still jonesing for a high. Every day, she walks past prostitutes in her neighborhood on the way home from the bus stop. Every time she sees them, she remembers she's only nine months away from that life herself.

Womack fishes her own mug shot out of her purse. She holds up the picture of the diseased woman with amorphous features and vacant eyes. The woman is an estranged mother, a battered woman, a hooker, and a crackhead.

Above all, the woman, Womack says, "is a miracle."

The woman isn't a success story. Not yet.

Nine months seem like a decade to Linda Womack. Congratulate her on having only a few months to go until her one-year mark, and she suddenly seems gripped with fear. She still takes sobriety on a day-to-day basis. There are times she feels free of it all. Then there are times the disease still stalks her.

Some former crack users are haunted by gut-wrenching cravings brought on by the flick of a lighter. Dust balls, to them, look so much like rocks that they want to lick the floor. The disease haunts Womack in the forms of dreams and cars. Even now, nine months sober, she can't look when a man in a car slows down next to her.

Will she make it?

It's too early to tell, says Jackie Discenza, treatment coordinator for the Cleveland Municipal Court. In 22 years as a probation officer, Discenza has tried to help scores of prostitutes. Maybe 1 in 10 makes it out.

"Usually they're in treatment one day and gone the next," she says. "They need to be in drug treatment for at least six months. These women have histories of physical abuse, sexual abuse. They just have horrendous backgrounds. It takes a good year of sobriety before we consider them a success."

Once former drug-addicted prostitutes get over the physical aching for the drugs, they awaken to the messes they've made of their lives. They realize they've driven away family members and friends. They probably lost custody of their children. They fight with the shame of the things they did when they were high and prostituting. They deal with all these things, in addition to trying to adjust to everyday, non-drug-addicted life. They need to find skills to get jobs. They need to find housing and transportation.

"The older women tend to make it, because they're just so tired," Discenza says. "The older ones, and the ones who still have something to lose."

Common treatment logic requires a willing departure from people, places, and things associated with addiction. Because few formerly drug-addicted prostitutes have the resources to completely remove themselves from all of these things, many end up back in the same neighborhoods. Ex-boyfriends, regular tricks, people to whom they owe money often attempt to reenter their lives. Even if they are willing to leave the lifestyle, others hinder their progress.

Cheri Funk, an HIV-outreach worker who educates prostitutes for Project Safe, once had the husband of a prostitute she was helping tell her, "Cheri, I like you, but if you get her out, I'm going to have to fuck you up. I need to pay my utility bill."

Unfortunately, Womack still lives near the neighborhood where she used to prostitute. She has, however, cut off everyone she associates with the disease. Now she spends a lot of time at work and church, writing in her journal and bonding with other women in the transitional housing complex where she lives.

She feels strength when she's helping someone else. During the group interview, she repeatedly consoles Marilyn, newly released from a six-month residential treatment program. Unlike Womack, who escaped her addiction and prostitution, amazingly, without contracting any serious illness, Marilyn is afflicted with hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver. She is bothered by the weight she's gained. Womack rubs her back and reassures her.

You truly look good, Womack tells her. "You don't have that chicken-booty nose no more," she teases.

Marilyn laughs, recalling the way addiction paled her face and sagged her skin, but she remains distant.

A day later, Marilyn doesn't keep a lunch date scheduled at Womack's restaurant. Womack assumes the worst.

Fearing Marilyn may be in the grip of the disease, the tenuousness of her own sobriety suddenly comes to mind.

"But for the grace of God go I," she says.

Later, she calls Marilyn, who isn't home.

Womack leaves a message. But Marilyn doesn't call back.

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