Prostitutes -- victims of crime -- seek the sacred
Date: Thursday, June 09 @ 15:48:16 EDT
Topic: Porn, Prostitution, Sex Industry

Sunday, June 05, 2005 By Ted Roelofs
The Grand Rapids Press

Vials of crack. Rats skittering down a hall in some abandoned house. Beatings, death threats from whacked-out Johns. And day by day, despair so dark and deep there seemed no way out.

For 22 years, prostitute Leslie King-Borrego inhabited this nightmare as she worked the streets of Grand Rapids. There came a day in a haze of crack cocaine, booze and downers at a run-down motel when she knew it must end -- one way or the other.

"July 4 of 2000," she recalled. "I was tired, tired of living."

She called out to a God she thought had forgotten her and somehow found a way to the light, with the help of nuns and an inner strength she never knew she had.

"I fought. I refused to quit," she says.

That was another lifetime. Now King-Borrego, 41, has made it her mission to grant other women the same chance.

Sitting in a Southeast Side Grand Rapids home for prostitutes she calls Sacred Beginnings, King-Borrego says it's simple. She sees promise in these broken-down, hopeless, social rejects when no one else will. And while some might stumble and fall, the next one might beat the odds, just like her.

"Every day, it's us against the world."

A 2002 report on local prostitution concluded she has plenty of work ahead.

According to the report -- issued by a group called the Prostitution Round Table -- "hundreds" of prostitutes work the Grand Rapids area, with a steady supply of customers from Kent and surrounding counties. It found that what had been a relatively stable group in the 1980s has spiraled into a transient, unhealthy population, largely due to the introduction of crack. The highest numbers remain along South Division Avenue from Fulton to 28th streets but they have spread to other Southeast Side locations as well.

The report found that women and girls who work the street are abused, exploited and live in poverty. One of its authors said its findings refute the notion that prostitution is a victimless crime.

"Just about everyone we've encountered in the Grand Rapids area that has been involved in prostitution has experienced some kind of childhood sexual abuse," said project consultant Jeannie Hosey said. That corresponds with national studies, including one based on intensive interviews with street prostitutes that found that 84 percent had experienced sexual assault as children.

In many cases, Hosey said, prostitutes turn to drugs as a means of "numbing" those memories.

Hosey believes the community has a long ways to go in its approach to prostitution. But she credits the Grand Rapids Police Department with moving beyond the traditional punitive approach busting Johns and locking up prostitutes.

"We realized we needed to do more," Chief Harry Dolan said.

For the past two years, the department has joined hands with social workers and counselors in a program aimed at getting prostitutes off the streets. Called Social Work and Police Partnership, or SWAPP, it offers counseling, referral to transitional housing and other support.

But it offers no safe and stable place for prostitutes alone.

"I think what Leslie is doing is wonderful," said Takeisha Plowden, program manager for SWAPP.

Plowden knows King-Borrego from her work as outreach worker for SWAPP. In that capacity, King-Borrego is most often the first contact prostitutes have with the program. She holds group meetings twice a week at the Kent County Jail, trying to convince the women there is a way out. She also conducts regular sessions of Prostitution Anonymous.

But she agrees with King-Borrego that prostitutes have a better shot at rehabilitation if they can live in a home, drug-free, with others just like them. They haven't had a place like that since Catholic Human Development Outreach closed Rose Haven in 2003 for financial reasons.

Given how far she had fallen, Grand Rapids Police Lt. Ralph Mason was frankly surprised King-Borrego made it out alive.

"The last time we locked Leslie up she was strung out and looked so bad that I figured she was on the way to death," said Mason, who dealt with her on the streets of Grand Rapids some 15 years.

Mason says that prostitutes who stay out on the streets as long as she did have two typical outcomes.

"They end up going to prison. They end up dying," he said.

But he also saw something else in King-Borrego, a quality that might have helped her survive.

"She is very tough. I don't think there was a day that I dealt with her that I turned my back on her."

He also remembers little chats they would have, not thinking she would ever take them to heart.

"I would always talk with her. She would say, 'I know I can do better.' "

Prostitutes' pattern

When she recounts how she was drawn into this life, she repeats the same patterns she hears again and again from the women she tries to help. She grew up in what she describes as a dysfunctional Grand Rapids family, with an alcoholic, abusive father and a mother overwhelmed at home. She was molested at age 8 by an older cousin.

She remembered what her cousin told her: "If you tell your father, I will beat your mother." She never told.

She dropped out of 10th grade at Ottawa Hills High School.

"I was a wreck at the time, not knowing who I was. All I knew was to run and hide. My self worth was very low. I started hanging out with different people."

At age 15, she turned to prostitution. Her addiction to crack cocaine followed.

As the years rolled by, as her addiction deepened, she cared less about her personal safety. She turned tricks, sometimes 10, 12 a day, in cars, alleys, behind buildings, making as much as $1,000 a day, so she could do drugs. She used the drugs until they were gone, then did more tricks so she could get more drugs to make the pain go away.

"What it did for me, is all the pain that I went through as a child it took that pain away. It only took it away for two minutes and you got to keep chasing that drug for that feeling."

Living on the edge

In a strange way, she even grew addicted to the razor's edge on which her life teetered.

"I've had a gun put to my head. I've had knives put to my throat," she said. "I have got in cars with Johns who when you got in would jimmy the doors so I couldn't get out and they would take me way. I've been raped. I've been beat.

"Oh, Lord, I've been through so much. A lot of the women in my era when I was out there are now dead."

She flopped in crack houses with other addicts. Or alone in empty houses she shared with the rats and raccoons. She fell asleep in the dead of winter in doorways. She was up sometimes two weeks straight, too wired on crack to sleep, talking out of her head. She went to jail, by her count, some 30 times.

As Lt. Mason says, not many prostitutes survive this way of life for long.

By that day in July 2000, King-Borrego says, she was "tired. I was just so tired. I just wanted it to be over.

"I made a lot of money. I went out and bought me a whole bunch of crack and a whole bunch of pills and vodka. I knew that you didn't mix crack and those pills. Your heart is going to go up and down and eventually it will blow. I was going to kill myself."

All alone in that hotel room, she remembered calling out. "I never believed in God because if there was a God, why did he let this happen to me?

"I said, 'If there is a God in heaven, help me. Just help.'"

The answer, she said, was "like an eruption in my stomach."

She threw up all the pills and booze in her stomach, an act that may have spared her life.

She went through drug detoxification and then to the Turning Point treatment program in Grand Rapid for 30 days and from there to Rose Haven, a residential program for prostitutes supported by Catholic Human Development Outreach.

Not surprisingly, she resisted at first.

"When I first got there I could not stand them nuns. I was very rebellious. I didn't like the change. I know the street life but this new life I don't know."

She put up sticky notes all over her room, things like, "Leslie, you are somebody," and "Leslie, you are beautiful."

And over time, she decided these nuns could tell her a thing or two.

She stayed there nine months and a year later was hired as a staff worker at Rose Haven. She worked there until it shut down in July 2003.

"I threw a fit when it closed," she said.

By then, she had married Cruz Borrego, a machine operator she met while at Rose Haven. While they bought a house in Grand Rapids and began to make a life together, she never forgot her dream to start a haven of her own for prostitutes.

Grand Rapids mortgage banker Corey Baker met Leslie King-Borrego about two years ago while she was looking for a house to buy. He learned about her story and decided he wanted to help by renting her the house for Sacred Beginnings at less than market rate. She opened her first house in March and then, three weeks ago, a second house in Southeast Grand Rapids.

"Just hearing the stories of what these women have been going through -- it puts things in perspective," Baker said.

Scraping by

For now, King-Borrego is grateful for any help that comes her way. Though she has obtained nonprofit tax status for Sacred Beginnings, it has no budget. The "staff" consists of Leslie King-Borrego, who drops in every day. She uses residents as her house managers. They scrape by with the help of food stamps or food from a local pantry.

But for all her passion, King-Borrego is a realist. She knows some of these women will break her heart.

Two months ago, prostitute Susan Calhoun came to Sacred Beginnings from Kalamazoo for what she figured was her best chance at escaping the life she had known since 1984. Calhoun, 36, had been in jail more times than she could remember. She has AIDS.

In 1994, her former husband and pimp caught her smoking crack. He hog tied her, doused her with lighter fluid and set her on fire, for which he was convicted in 1995 of assault with intent to commit murder.

Her probation officer released her in late March to Sacred Beginnings, where King-Borrego stayed with her all that first night as her body twitched and shook from the effects of crack.

Weeks later, Calhoun was clean and drug free and felt some hope for the first time she could remember.

Not long afterward, she was hospitalized for pancreatitis. She was given a prescription for methadone, a form of synthetic heroin. And then she was gone.

"I went around the corner to go to the store. When I got back she was walking away," King-Borrego says, tears streaming down her face. She failed to talk her out of leaving.

"It hurt me real bad because she is going to die. I felt like she was walking into her grave."

She still talks to Calhoun about every other week and, characteristically, will not give up on her. Then she wiped away her tears and looked to the other lost causes coming her way.

"For the rest of the girls I can't fall apart. I got more coming in this week. If I can do it, it can be done. But first you got to make them changes."

Origionally published Grand Rapids Press

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