“Then the economy took a dive and she got laid off,” says Brandy. To save money while looking for another job, Mimi broke her lease and downgraded to renting a room for about $90 a week.
But soon, her meager savings started to drain. “She would call and I’d ask, ‘Did you try Target? Did you try Wal-mart? What’s close to the bus station?’ I’d try to talk her though it.”
Then Brandy received a voicemail that she still can’t bring herself to delete.
“She [was] absolutely hysterical, [saying] that she couldn’t do it anymore and she was to the point where she had no money. The landlord told her that she had to leave because she was already a week and a half behind on paying her rent,” says Brandy. “So she went to a club and danced for one night.”
They spoke the next day.
“[Mimi] said, ‘I can’t do it, I don’t care what I have to do, I had flashbacks and it was horrible and I don’t like feeling like that,’” recalls Brandy. “She said, ‘I want to be better than that.’”
Brandy hooked Mimi up with Philadelphia’s Covenant House. She stayed there a while, but had to leave on her 22nd birthday, according to policy.
“She had to leave and had nowhere to go,” says Brandy. “Desperate, she got back in the life. She was taken to New York and apparently decided she couldn’t do it anymore and committed suicide.”
Brandy doesn’t know the gory details; she says she doesn’t want to know.
Meanwhile, Brandy has founded her own anti-trafficking group called Helping Educate and Advocate Against Trafficking (HEAAT) and is part of an effort that is advocating to pass the Safe Harbor Act for New Jersey.
The Safe Harbor Act recognizes American-born children exploited in the commercial sex trade as victims in need of services and rehabilitation instead of incarceration. In essence, it is the first step toward stopping the mainstream practice of jailing girls for men’s crimes. In 2008, New York became the first state to pass it.
Despite slow-moving legislative changes that can help protect kids like Mimi in the future, it’s still almost impossible to find funding for direct services. “No grants, no nothing,” sighs Brandy.
Activists are pushing similar legislation in Pennsylvania, but that doesn’t help the estimated 100,000 girls like Mimi now. Even with Safe Harbor on the books three years now, budget deficits in New York have prevented its funding. It’s estimated there are 50 beds available across the country.
In Philadelphia, prostitutes on average die by the age of 40.
Though violence against women and girls on the street generally goes unrecognized—women acclimated to being arrested for prostitution don’t exactly run to cops when they are assaulted—the search for the Kensington Strangler recently brought to light just how harrowing life is for women and girls on the street.
Strangling and rape is so common that when women reported getting choked and raped, that alone wasn’t enough evidence to link to the same perpetrator. Outreach workers say that’s business as usual.
But institutional biases and the cultural prejudices that inform them are still winning out, legislatively speaking, over what studies and common sense confirm: most modern street prostitution is not a victimless crime.
Just 15 when recruited into the so-called game, Mimi was a victim and we failed to help her.
As a society, we’re up in arms about traffickers yet ignore—and sometimes glorify—pimps, even though they are just domestic traffickers. We not only condone johns by generally not bothering to arrest and prosecute them, our policies and laws reflect their point of view. We also accept the myths and the lies.
At one point I asked Mimi if she thought her customers knew the real deal.
Mimi’s on the run. After five years of being whipped with burning wire, pummeled by bare fists and having her skull repeatedly smashed into concrete, the childlike 20-year-old—who’s had nearly 30 pimps since she was 15—is running as fast as she can from a life inside the teen-sex industry. Two months into her escape, she remains in hiding in New Jersey. If a former pimp catches up with her, she could be killed. Mimi hopes to find salvation in Philadelphia, at a safe haven called Dawn’s Place. Right now Dawn’s Place isn’t fully functional. The building is purchased and painted and permits are secured, but the board of directors is still seeking sustainable funding...
Project Dawn Court is Philadelphia’s newest problem-solving court, designed for women with repeat prostitution offenses. The first of its kind in the country, it aims to reduce both drug possession recidivism rates and the cost of jailing drug addicts by providing rehabilitative services under close court supervision.
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