Terri Frame, 46, has been a sex worker since she was 17. She is homeless in Kensington and addicted to heroin and crack. Frame talks calmly about a brutal attack she survived last year, during which a man severed her vocal cords.
“I acted like I died, and he left,” she said. “It’s a roll of the dice out here. You take your chances. If prostitution wasn’t illegal, it could be done so much easier and safer.”
When asked whether she feels safe now walking Kensington Avenue, also known as the “stroll,” Frame answered, “yes and no. I follow my gut. I listen to it. I’m a survivor.”
She says she is also very skilled at her work: “I’m a psychologist and a psychiatrist and a marriage counselor. I make people’s fantasies come true.”
Frame doesn’t want to quit prostitution.
“It’s a way of living for me,” she said.
But she is trying to kick her drug habit and find housing and is doing so with the help of volunteers from Project SAFE, an underground grassroots organization that serves approximately 450 to 600 Philadelphia sex workers who identify as women – women who are otherwise rejected and ignored, shoved to the margins of society.
Project SAFE’s mission is to reduce harm among women engaged in injection drug use and prostitution or transactional sex, the trading of sex for housing or other basic needs. Its volunteers primarily do outreach in Kensington – Philly’s prostitution hub – but they will go anywhere in the city to offer clients services.
What makes the organization unique is the extent of its outreach and the fact its volunteers are trying to empower rather than fix the women they serve. Project SAFE’s goal is not to get their clients to quit prostitution but rather to make their work safer and to help them establish a sense of community.
“We come at this from a very non-judgmental perspective,” said volunteer Amanda Spitfire, 34, a trauma counselor, who is also in recovery. “We don’t ask people why they’re taking the resources.”
Three times a week, Project SAFE volunteers travel around Philadelphia, handing out kits with condoms, wound care supplies and other materials.
“We want to reach out and connect with people on their terms,” said Project SAFE volunteer Jeanette Bowles, 35, a social worker who just earned her doctorate from Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health.
“The ladies who help us are very down to earth,” said Jennifer Gianetta, 38, another sex worker who takes advantage of Project SAFE services. “They understand what we’re going through because some of them are sex workers themselves or are in recovery. They go out of their way here. They go above and beyond.”
Gianetta says she started “running the streets” in Atlantic City when she was 32. “I had clean time before,” she said. “When I fell this time, I did things I never thought I would do.”
She was in prison from 2012 to 2015 for drug possession and parole violation and moved to Northeast Philadelphia when she got out to live with her 21-year-old son. Gianetta says she had 10 months clean before she fell back into drugs and prostitution to support her habit.
Right now she is living by the Conrail tracks in Kensington in an elaborate structure made out of a large carpet, a tarp and a tent, complete with candles and a picture of Marilyn Monroe. “Everybody who comes here says, ‘If you can do this with a tent, imagine what you could do with an apartment.’”
In addition to her oldest son, Gianetta has 10- and 11-year-olds who live with her ex-husband and a 15-year-old daughter who lives with her mother. She says she wants to become a massage therapist and get off the streets and start helping support her children.
“It’s not too late for nobody,” Gianetta said. “I still have a spark of hope in me.”
She sees Project SAFE as a gateway to her goals, adding that Spitfire is trying to get her into a Suboxone program.
Project SAFE volunteers link clients with medication-assisted and other forms of drug treatment and detox. They conduct trauma counseling and medical advocacy. For instance, if a client is sick in the hospital and not being treated well – which is not an uncommon experience among the women they serve, Project SAFE volunteers say – they can call the hotline and ask for help. And the organization maintains and distributes a “bad date alert” sheet.
“If women have been assaulted, they can tell their story, and we write it up,” Bowles said. “It’s like a protective tool for women to kind of know what to look out for.”
Participants call the hotline, and a volunteer transcribes and maintains the report. The alerts are intense and detailed, sometimes including vehicle license plate numbers and descriptions of violent johns.
Unlike indoor sex workers, who may receive their clients through a service or through websites – and who may have more resources and time to evaluate potentially dangerous situations – sex workers who stroll Kensington Avenue often have to make split-second decisions about whether or not to get into a car, especially if there is a heavy police presence. With the bad date alert in hand, women have more tools to “make good decisions,” said Aisha Mohammed, 36, a Project SAFE volunteer and couples’ and family therapist.
One of the other places people pick up the bad date alert is at the Tuesday Ladies’ Nights that Project SAFE hosts at Prevention Point Philadelphia, one of the largest needle exchanges in the country. There, individuals who identify as women can receive everything from food and clothes to harm reduction supplies and referrals. They can also take showers, get counseling, or simply step off the street for a few hours.
If somebody wants to just sit on a couch and take a break, they can,” Bowles said.
“In Kensington, there’s no rules out here, no loyalties,” Gianetta said. “Anything goes. So the one day we come in here, it gives you like a warm and fuzzy.”
Ladies’ Night is also where Project SAFE has been striving to form a collective to empower sex workers in Philadelphia.
“Basically, the idea is that when people are more unified in what they’re doing then they’re more able to fight for their rights,” Mohammed said, adding that part of the goal was to create an “identity” among sex workers.
“Sex work is real work, and we should be afforded the same rights as other workers,” said Janet Duran, who has been an escort and companion off and on for the past 20 years. The money she makes has enabled her to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology and to raise her child. She has operated out of hubs ranging from Atlantic City to Manhattan. And now Duran, who lives in Newark, is trying to organize a collective of sex workers in New Jersey.
“Having sex is legal, and making money is legal – so why is it a crime when the two come together?” Duran asked. “A lot of us are in it to stay out of poverty. People don’t realize that a lot of us are just trying to support ourselves and our families.”
Frame agrees: “It’s our bodies, and if we choose to do that in a healthy and safe way, what’s wrong with that?”
Project SAFE volunteers say forming a collective is crucial for sex workers.
“I cannot explain to you the importance and power of creating community for a group of humans that is so marginalized and so stigmatized by almost everyone,” Spitfire said. “So finding a community where you can just be honest and be yourself is just quite literally life saving.”
For more info or to get involved with Project SAFE, called 866-509-SAFE or visit projectsafephilly.org