Somewhere in the night along the dimly lit Kalamazoo Street corridor a woman walks with no destination in mind. She’s looking for a ride, a round trip that will bring her back to the same street, hopefully with a few dollars in her pocket.
When a man finally offers a ride, she knows it’s not out of chivalry or kindness — it’s for sex. With only seconds to profile him, she knows the ride can land her one of several places: back on the streets, a jail cell, clinging to life in the hospital or dead in a ditch.
Although their paths to Lansing were different and they were raised in opposite parts of the state, Grace and Mary have shared many of the same tragic experiences common among women and men in prostitution: Both were sexually abused as children, both have drug problems, both have experienced homelessness and both have narrowly escaped being murdered on several occasions.
They are also both sex workers on Kalamazoo, a life they don’t want.
Grace, who is in her 30s, has been working the Lansing streets for roughly two years. She has a college degree, had held good jobs and prefers to do “honest work.”
She was on methadone pain treatment for over a decade. She had recreationally experimented with crack. When she lost her job and her Medicaid she could no longer afford methadone treatments.
“I thought I was going to make it through going cold turkey, but then I started having seizures,” she said. “Then someone introduced me to heroin.”
Now, she’s addicted to both crack and heroin.
Mary, who is in her 40s, has been “hoein’” on “the stroll” and using crack since she was 15. She ran away from an abusive home as a teenager and found herself drawn to the fast cash that prostitution provided. She’s worked the streets of cities all over the country and doesn’t know anything but the life of a sex worker.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take for me (to get out of the life), but I do know that there’s a calling on my life and there’s something for me to do; that’s why God is keeping me alive,” she said. “I just don’t know what yet. Anytime somebody been getting high as long as I been getting high — they’re dead.”
Among the women who get “dates” on Kalamazoo, “not many people are not on drugs,” Grace said. She and Mary said drug addiction keeps them, and most other women, on the streets turning tricks with regular customers and occasional random customers or “johns.”
The drug environment in which they live is, as Grace put it, “an evil force working against you.” Homeless, Grace says she “couch surfs” and lives out of drug houses in which she is surrounded by crack users who are always pushing the drug on her, even if she’s trying to stay clean.
“I need safe housing where no one is smoking crack,” she said. “That’s the big problem with it: Once I get out of treatment, I’m put right back in the mix because I don’t have a place to live.”
Both women have been in and out of drug treatment centers with little success.
Mary “would have died” had she not found a place to live, with the financial assist of a disability check.
“You know, I have not had a roof over my head in a long time,” she said. “This place has made me a lot cleaner than when I was using 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Aside from battling addiction and homelessness, violence is another regular part of the life, both said. Grace has nearly had her throat cut, almost been choked to death and has been stalked and raped while working Kalamazoo. She recounts each event in a flat tone of voice, as if describing a boring day at work.
“It happens frequently. It’s not normal, but after it happens so many times, it’s like ... ,” Grace said, pausing as she tried to recollect the number of times she’d been raped. “You don’t have any feelings anymore. It’s not something that’s normal, it’s just something that happened again, you know what I mean?”
She said the first man that raped her still cruises the block for girls.
Mary has kept a low profile since coming to Lansing. Her lengthy time on the streets left her wise to the dos and don’ts of turning tricks. She usually sticks with a handful of regular customers. She said she’s been in “the Grim Reaper’s” car twice in her life. As for Lansing, she said, “I hear about girls getting fucked up and killed all the time. Stuff that doesn’t make the paper.”