July 11 2012 12:00 AM

Kalamazoo sex workers tell their stories


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.

 The daily dance of the sex workers who roam Kalamazoo Street is an endless circle of drug addiction, violence and exploitation. Although the Lansing Police Department and residents say that prostitution is down in the area, that doesn’t change a thing for the women who are still out there working the streets.

If you’re basing what you know about prostitution off of “Pretty Woman,” then it’s time for a reality check.

Residents weigh in

Kim and Brian Sterrett have lived in their house just off Kalamazoo for nearly four years. As they sat on their porch, smoking cigarettes in the evening sun, they talked about the recent history of prostitution in the area, from girls getting dropped off at the corner near their house to men in vehicles “trolling” for some action.

 “You can always see women up and down Kalamazoo,” Kim Sterrett said. “They don’t bother us, but you can tell they’re working the way they look at every car.”

 This year, however, there haven’t been as many girls walking the streets, they said, crediting several large prostitution stings last year by the Lansing Police Department. It’s definitely a “not in my backyard” kind of situation for the couple.

 “If they come down my street, I’d call the cops,” she said. “I babysit my grandkids during the day, and they don’t need to see that.”

 Twenty-one-year-old Minori Wisti has only lived near Kalamazoo for about a year, but she’s seen plenty of women walking the main drag and side streets of Kalamazoo. Men in their cars have even approached her as they circle the area.

 “I’ve gotten asked if I was working,” she said. “I don’t like it. It makes me nervous.”

 Both the Sterretts and Wisti said there are people in the neighborhood who harass the prostitutes. In early June an unknown resident tacked up signs all along Kalamazoo that read: “No Hoe Zone” and “Don’t Stop for Hoes.”

 “It’s kind of sad,” Wisti said. “I’m not going to be the one shouting mean things at them. I don’t think prostitution is good or anything, but I don’t know their situation.”

The situation

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.”

A survivor

As Grace and Mary shared their stories, Lisa Sarno listened to the women recount experiences that were not far from the facts of her own life.  

Sarno graduated in May from Michigan State University with her master’s in social work; she got married this summer and recently found a job with a homeless housing outreach program in Ann Arbor. Her story sounds like that of many other college grads. But Sarno has lived two very different lives. 

In the late 1980s, during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, Sarno was an active member of the community in Columbus, Ohio, where she was part of reggae band that traveled the country. She helped start a food co-op and was a self-described “hippie.” Eventually, she found herself on the stroll after becoming addicted to crack. 

“One night after a gig in Columbus, I managed to smoke some of that stuff and that was it, that’s all it took to draw me in,” she said. “It was frightening. I had a home, I had kids, I had a lot going for me and I lost it all.”

Sarno said she joined Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a vendor until her drug use became so bad that she was fired and given a one-way ticket to the place of her choice. She picked  Flint, where she knew someone. That led her to drug rehab in Ann Arbor and, eventually, East Lansing for school.

Sarno said she didn’t just wake up one day and start walking the streets. She said she was coerced into the game the same way many addicts are: a sex-for-drug exchange. 

Sober since 1997, Sarno, 47, now has a unique view of prostitution. Not only has she lived and survived it, she’s studied it.

“Had I not used crack cocaine, I would not have been a prostitute,” she said. “Your typical person doesn’t just give up their dreams to start smoking crack. You already have some issues before that.

“The people that are working the street and are involved in prostitution and commercial sex work have trauma, and I’ve studied this, too, as a social worker. A lot of it is childhood sexual trauma and abuse.”

Sarno said she also experienced sexual abuse in her childhood, like Grace and Mary. The drug use became a necessary partner to living the life. She rationalized that you have to do more drugs to deal with a job that Sarno said is “contrary to survival instincts.”

“If you’re getting your ass kicked out there and you’re doing a really dangerous job — I don’t know if there is a more dangerous job than jumping in random cars at all times of the day and night, unprotected — you can’t be sober. You have to shut down a lot of survival mechanisms to do that, and the only way to do that is to stay loaded.” 

Torture, rape and sadism figure prominently in the stories from Sarno’s life in prostitution. She resides on the east side, just off Kalamazoo, well within viewing distance of the women who are living out the same experiences she once did. She can attest to how they feel and what they’re going through.  

“At some point, you don’t even give a fuck anymore. You’re just desperate,” Sarno said. “The majority of people out there are homeless and in some sort of jam. You’re looking at a lot of depression — to be walking suicidal. It’s a hard life. Really, really hard.” 

An ignorant citizenry  

After getting a degree in women’s studies at Michigan State University, Deena Policicchio said she would have considered herself an “enlightened feminist.” Her world was rocked when she began working with the organization Alternatives for Girls in Detroit and came to understand the brutal life of the street sex worker. 

Alternatives for Girls is a shelter, prevention and outreach program for at-risk girls and women on the streets of Detroit, many of whom are involved with prostitution. The organization’s goal is not to legalize or end prostitution but to provide “harm reduction” services, including HIV prevention, food, resources and information and rides to the shelter. No similar organization exists in Lansing. 

“I would say your average citizen is ignorant of the plight of girls and women who work the street,” said Policicchio, outreach director for AFG. “They don’t understand the myriad of layers of abuse and the systematic and institutionalized stigma they deal with.”

 A study conducted in the late 1990s by Prostitution Research & Education, a San Francisco-based group, found that over two thirds of Bay Area sex workers met the qualifications for a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis. 

That trend continues across the board, Policicchio said. Similar assessments have shown that the PTSD commonly identified among sex workers is four times worse than that of a soldier coming back from a combat zone. 

“The damage on their psyche is worse than being at war,” Policicchio said. 

Despite living with constant trauma from violence and abuse most prostitutes never call the police after being assaulted, Sarno said. Grace and Mary echoed her words. Based on their experiences, they said, the police don’t care about them and asking for help wouldn’t improve their situation.  

“When I was working, stuff like that would happen to me and I wouldn’t call the police,” Sarno said. “I would just tell the other girls, ‘Don’t get in that car.’ I would tell the other girls, but I would never tell the police.”

Grace, who has been arrested before, said it’s the drug addiction stigma that’s to blame.

“If they hear that you’re a crack smoker, (the police) don’t care,” she said. “The only way they show up for something is if you go to the hospital. But as soon as the word ‘crack’ is mentioned, they won’t do anything for you.”

Calling the police while engaging in prostitution isn’t exactly proactive when trying to remain safe around other people in the life — johns and pimps — in the neighborhood, Sarno said. Women are targeted for allying with police. 

What to do

Small steps, like an outreach van similar to AFG’s, are the best place to start, according to Sarno. In a world in which the women working streets like Kalamazoo find themselves at odds with neighbors, police, johns, pimps and drug addicts, Sarno knows they have few place to turn for help. 

Daryl Green, captain of Lansing Police Department investigations, said prostitution-related calls are down in the area and that the stings last year helped make progress in the area.

He said the LPD will continue to work the area “aggressively.”

Sarno and Policicchio agree that law enforcement doesn’t have all the answers. Prostitution is rolled up in poverty, sexism, drug addiction, homelessness, mental and physical health care disparities, abuse and racism.  

“It’s part of our culture,” Sarno said. “I know people don’t see it like that; they’re not making these connections. The problem is so interconnected you can’t remove one piece and think it will take care of the whole situation.”