Philly is one of a handful of places in the U.S. that offers safe haven to former prostitutes
But Mimi's story is different. As an American citizen, she was trafficked domestically, and girls like her are on street corners everywhere. She's part of the street-level commercial sex-for-sale system, or what insiders call "the game."
The game preys on kids. The average age a prostitute in the U.S. starts working is 12 or 13. Some research skews the age even younger.
Sitting in a room in New Jersey, chaperoned by her caseworker, Mimi prepares to recount her story for Sabella, who was once a teenage go-go dancer in a club in Bucks County. She's now a mental health nurse and a professor at three universities and she's documenting Mimi's story for her doctoral thesis. She'll use the recording for insight as she develops the counseling program that will be used at Dawn's Place.
Mimi takes a deep breath.
"Where do you want to begin?" she asks politely. "It depends where you want to begin."
At 6 years old, Mimi was adopted from a Russian orphanage by a couple from New Jersey who had a brood of boys but always wanted a little girl. She doesn't know what happened to her biological parents. "They gave me to an orphanage before I even opened my eyes," she says.
Mimi remembers little about her early years beyond playing in the ice and snow with the other kids, and that it was always freezing, and the one best friend she left behind was named Ana. She's nagged by the feeling that "a lot of stuff" happened to her in Russia, though she adds that if she was sexually abused as a baby, she doesn't remember it.
"I have scars on my butt, like deep indentation scars. It was a knife, and I don't know what that's from. My parents don't know what that's from [either]," she says. "The adoption people never said nothing about it. They just said, 'She was born like that.' But I don't think so."
As an adolescent, Mimi didn't get along well with her parents.
"They're older, so they were very strict when they raised me," she explains. "I couldn't do nothing. Like literally, nothing."
At 15, she met an older guy on a Nextel push-to-talk phone line, hopped on a bus and headed west. It was a decision that put her life in a tailspin.
Her 25-year-old boyfriend's dope-dealing mother and grandmother pressured Mimi into prostitution. The duo told the young girl that if she wanted to continue living in their house, she had to pay their rent.
"I was like, 'What do you mean?'" says Mimi. "It was weird. I was like, 'What do you want me to do?' I didn't know what they wanted me to do."
Thousands of miles from home and with nowhere to go, Mimi turned her first trick.
But things didn't work out--Mimi's boyfriend got another 15-year-old girl pregnant--so she returned to her family in Jersey, earned a GED and generally stayed out of trouble. But, Mimi says, "Things didn't work out." Soon enough, she ran away again.
"I left again and just kept going back to the streets," she says. "At the time, I just wanted--I felt comfort in the streets. Like I was protected."
That feeling disappeared. Soon, Mimi met pimps who said they wanted to protect her, but instead hurt her badly.
There was the guy who favored punishment by the classic "pimpstick"--he untangled a wire hanger, heated it with fire until it glowed red, and then whipped Mimi with it. Mimi still has the scars.
"Over a Social Security card, too," she says, remembering her surprise. "That was so dumb."
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4