Two years ago, LB* was homeless in Dallas/Fort Worth, panhandling for food and trading sex for meth. Then a Denver nonprofit helped her find the hope she needed to change her life.
By Sarah Harvey
It’s 2012. LB* is in Colorado Springs, sitting in the front passenger seat of her rented Dodge Charger with a drug dealer, trying to buy meth. Then he pulls out a gun and tells her she belongs to him.
He kept her for a week before she escaped. In a strange twist, LB credits her escape to her extreme drug use leading up to that point. Her kidnapper had been giving LB meth to smoke, not knowing that she was an intravenous user. That meant she never got high enough for him to do something like pimp her out.
At first LB was afraid to run. The man who took her had threatened her; he had the gun with him all the time. He kept her from running by threatening her with all sorts of things from shaving her head to selling her to someone else. But at the end of that week, when he was driving her somewhere with another woman and a man whom she suspected were gang members, she sensed that something in her situation had changed.
“You know when you get those feelings like you’re about to die?” she asked.
LB managed to jump out of the car when it was stopped at a red light and ran into a 7-Eleven to get away. She called the cops a day later, but just to report the stolen rental car. She was afraid to report anything else, because she didn’t want to get in trouble for her drug use.
She stayed in Colorado Springs for a few weeks. She didn’t have any place to go—she was being evicted from her apartment back in Wyoming—and now she didn’t even have a car. Eventually, LB convinced her mom to come get her.
She only went home for a few days, though. Just long enough to get the rest of her stuff out of that apartment she was losing and move it into a storage unit. Then she took off for Texas. She had a few friends there, and hoped it would be a fresh start.
“But I didn’t realize how emotionally and mentally fucked up I was going to be,” said LB. She had underestimated the effect her kidnapping would have on her. She started having night terrors. “My solution to that was to start doing dope again,” said LB.
It would take three and a half more years—three and a half years that included heavy drug use, prostitution, and homelessness—before LB would come back to Colorado to get her life straightened out at Streets Hope, a Denver nonprofit that helps women escape sex trafficking and radically transform their lives. Streets Hope has undergone its own radical transformation in the past decade. It is an organization that understands that women need more than smiles and referrals to turn their lives around.
The First Time
LB was 16 the first time she tried meth. That was in the early 2000s. At the time she was living in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, a town where meth use was so ubiquitous that MTV filmed “True Life: I’m on Crystal Meth” there.
It happened at a party—LB partied pretty hard in high school, and everyone else seemed to being doing meth. “Eventually I was like, ‘well, why not?’,” said LB. That first time, she didn’t try very much and it didn’t really do anything for her. The next time, she smoked more. “It was great,” said LB of that second time. “You’re super wired and just kind of feel invincible.”
LB smoked meth for two months, and then started shooting it up. A lot of the guys she hung out with were shooting it, so she wanted to try it too. She was always a “one of the guys” kind of girls.
She wasn’t scared that first time. “I was 16, I was invincible as far as I was concerned,” said LB. She shot up at her parents’ house on a school night. The basement of her family home had a separate entrance, so it was easy to sneak friends in. One of her guy friends came over, and LB goaded him into helping her shoot up. He didn’t want to do it at first, but she convinced him that she’d be safer if he helped. If he did it for her, she reasoned, she would know it was being done right. If she tried to do it on her own, or got someone else to help her, she could get hurt. Or at least that was the logic she used on her friend, and it worked. He mixed the meth he’d brought with water in a spoon, prepared the needle, and shot her up.
She probably saved that first syringe; she typically reused them. During high school, she hid them in the bodices of her porcelain dolls. “I’ve always been pretty ingenious about hiding stuff,” said LB.
Although she started using meth at a young age, it wasn’t until about a decade later that LB became dependent on the drug. During her early twenties, alcohol was her substance of choice. She had a serious drinking problem, and would use other amphetamines like Adderall, Ritalin, or even cocaine to cope with the aftermath of her drinking.
By 27, LB had grown steadily more dependent on drugs and alcohol. She was in Wyoming then, working at an Applebee’s. Her previous experience with meth made it easy for her to spot an addict among one of her coworkers. He displayed all the physical signs of a tweaker: sunken eyes, jerky movements, he was constantly touching his nose and face. LB asked him to help her get meth. Soon, she was using it on a regular basis.
“I was just in a really bad place and was really unhappy with myself,” said LB, “and the way I had always dealt with that was to use drugs or alcohol.”
Eventually, LB lost her job at Applebee’s and was facing eviction from her apartment. That’s when she headed to Colorado Springs to get meth from a guy her former coworker knew.
Hitting Rock Bottom in Texas
After she was kidnapped, LB went to Texas looking for a fresh start, but the trauma of what happened in Colorado Springs sent her into a tailspin. She would spend the better part of three years homeless in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Meth still played a major role in her life back then. Eventually, so would survival sex, a term that means engaging in sexual acts for the exchange of basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. Sex for drugs counts too. According to Allison Meyers, program director at Streets Hope, pimps often use drugs to control prostitutes. As addiction takes hold, a pimp has to do less work. “Drugs become the pimp,” said Meyers.
When she first got to Texas, LB stayed with a couple friends. She wore out her welcome, moved in with another friend, and wore out her welcome again. Within a few months after arriving in Texas, she found herself homeless. That’s when LB met her first pimps—who were actually two other women. She didn’t work for them for long, though, maybe a week. Then she met a man who offered to give her drugs, which seemed like a better deal at the time.
“I figured, why have a middle man? Might as well just get drugs,” said LB. “There were a few instances where I did actually sleep with somebody for money, but that was probably a handful of times. Where I was in my life, to survive I needed to get high.”
Sometimes people would offer her a place to stay in exchange for certain favors. Sometimes people would just offer her a place to stay. “Often times, I would wind up with people who were lonely,” said LB. She calls those the times she “haunted other people’s houses.”
“I would stay in my room by myself making arts and crafts and shooting up drugs,” said LB. Her art projects involved taking glass bowls and creating mosaic-like collages on their sides with glue, 3-D stickers, glitter, paint, whatever she could find. She would create scenes on the glass, and then liked to place candles in the finished bowls and watch them glow.
Not every house she haunted provided LB with those kinds of tranquil moments. She was raped three times during those Dallas years. The second time was by a man who had offered to let her stay with him. LB went to the hospital after, but fled when the hospital staff offered to call the cops.
At the height of her addiction, LB was using a couple grams a day. A gram of meth generally went for $100 bucks. Sometimes LB was dating drug dealers. “I guess you could call it dating,” she said. But when she wasn’t hanging around drug dealers to meet her meth needs, she resorted to either prostitution or trading items she found. When she had internet access, she’d use pages like Craigslist and Backpage.com to find people who wanted to “party and play,” or trade sex for drugs.
She might have to trade sex every couple days to meet her needs. Sometimes she was in such a bad state that the people she met for sex wouldn’t be interested in that half of the transaction anymore. “I was too spun out and insane to sleep with people,” said LB. They would just get her high so she would leave.
When she wasn’t crashing at someone’s house, incarcerated (once, for four months), or briefly staying in a shelter, for the majority of those Dallas years, LB was sleeping—or, more accurately, not sleeping—outside. She only slept when her body gave out. She would panhandle for something to eat outside fast food restaurants, managing to eat at least one meal a day this way. She frequently suffered from delusions, sometimes convincing herself she was dead.
After three years, LB managed to sober up long enough to call her mom. At the time, she was staying in the back room of a guy’s house, and used his phone. She remembers sobbing hysterically during the conversation. She told her mom she was clean, and that she wanted to come home. That the people she was around were awful human beings. But her mom wasn’t convinced at first.
There had been other phone calls like this, like that one from Colorado Springs three years earlier. Every couple months LB would call her mom. She tried not to call when she was fucked up, because when she was out of her mind she would say weird things, like she’d ask her mom if she—LB—had any kids. She had lied and said she was clean before, when she really wasn’t. That’s why her mom was wary.
Somehow, LB managed to convey that this time, she was serious. Her parents decided to come get her, and, two days later, they showed up in Texas to take her home. Five months later, she was enrolled in the program at Streets Hope.
Streets Hope understands what it takes to reflect on the past and make a fresh start; over the past decade it has reinvented itself and revamped its programs whenever it realized it wasn’t meeting all its clients’ needs. When Streets Hope was founded in 2004, it was all about street outreach. Teams made up of employees and volunteers would walk down Colfax, distributing things like cookies, hugs, hygiene items, and referrals to service providers.
Since those early days, the nonprofit has gone from an organization that passed out hugs and referrals to a complete rehabilitation program that includes a safe house, a non-residential program, and direct links to other service providers in the Denver metro area.
“At every step in the road as we started to engage these women, we just found that they needed more than what was currently available,” said Meyers. “So it was, okay, they need more. How do we fill that gap?”
In 2007, Streets Hope purchased a safe house. One year later, it opened its first transitional housing and residential community. LB would end up in one of those ten residential spots in 2015.
A safe place to recover was crucial to a woman’s ability to transition out of sex work, but the opening of the safe house was just the beginning of the organization’s transformation. “Housing was just a part of it,” said Meyers. “They needed more than just a place to lay their heads at night.”
In 2012, Streets Hope revamped their entire program, introducing a new non-residential program. This addition to the safe house program was for women who didn’t necessarily need the refuge of a safe house, but still needed support and resources.
Women trying to leave the sex trade typically experience a wide range of barriers, such as addiction, mental health issues, complex trauma, lack of education, lack of job history, and homelessness or a precarious housing situation. Streets Hope treats all of these barriers.
Most of the women who go through the Streets Hope doors have engaged in survival sex. Homelessness and survival sex go hand in hand, and virtually every woman who has passed through the Streets Hope program has had some experience with homelessness. “I really haven’t met anyone that hasn’t lived on the streets at some point,” said Meyers.
“After a while it tends to suck out your soul,” said LB. “Eventually I knew I couldn’t do that anymore,” she said of her life as an addict, “but I didn’t think I could do anything else either.”
Like every women who goes through the Streets Hope program, LB has a unique story. Still, the broader strokes of her situation were fairly representative of the clients Streets Hope serves. Forty-five percent of the women who have gone through the program were between 18-33, and a little more than half were chronic meth users.
To date, 175 women have gone through at least part of a Streets Hope program. By the end of this year, that number will be closer to 200. About 25-35 percent of these women officially “graduate” in the sense that they’ve met the stability milestones needed to complete the program. But Streets Hope doesn’t measure success in terms of graduates; it sees every woman who walks through its doors as a success. In the past two years, the average length of stay in a program has increased from three to four months to eight to nine months. “In my mind, that’s a success,” said Meyers, who attributes this growth to a supportive, strong community in the Streets Hope program.
“I think it’s because we’re really honing in on what this population needs, really just listening,” said Meyers. Any program that says their clients never relapse is lying, according to Meyers. “If someone has been involved in something for 30 years, it’s hard to walk away.”
LB thinks people who don’t stay and complete the program either aren’t done with drugs, or aren’t yet ready to take the time to repair themselves. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be ready someday.
“Whenever I first got there, I didn’t think I wanted to do anything at all,” said LB. “I was just so scarred and drained being homeless and being a drug addict for as long as I was.”
“When she came in she wasn’t sure what she was capable of,” said Meyers, remembering her first encounters with LB. “She wasn’t ready to grasp the idea that there was strength and power within her. When she left, she had tapped into it.”
According to Meyers, once LB found her voice, she lost all fear of using it. In group sessions, LB often provided much needed comic relief. Clients at Streets Hope have TV and movie guidelines, and end up watching a lot of Disney and Pixar movies. Sometimes, in group, LB might blurt out the word “squirrel,” in a nod to the movie Up.
LB graduated from the Streets Hope program in August. Right now, she is focused on reconnecting with her family. She hopes she’ll be going back to school next year, maybe for a degree in criminal psychology. “I figure I know all the ins and outs, I might as well get a degree in it,” said LB.
When it comes to her achievements during her time at Streets Hope, LB notes that while overcoming legal problems (like getting her ID back and getting her Texas warrant taken care of) were maybe the biggest logistical steps in her progress, there were personal things that felt like much bigger milestones—like being able to ride the bus by herself.
“It was still pretty scary,” said LB of that first successful solo bus ride. “For a long time I wasn’t able to get anywhere because my brain was so fried.” She was suffering from delusions, sometimes hearing voices, and she didn’t like being in crowds. There had been times before when she had been convinced the voice on the bus that announced stops was talking to her directly. She would get freaked out and get off at the wrong stop.
For that first successful ride, LB borrowed her roommate’s phone so that she could use it to listen to music on the bus. That way, she could shut out the other voices around her, and just concentrate on not getting lost.
“It was almost that same feeling like when you’re a kid and you do something that grownups do for the first time,” said LB. After that day, she felt like she could do other things too. “It was the gateway to me becoming normal-ish again.” And she wouldn’t have gotten there without Streets Hope. ■
For more information on Streets Hope, visit their website at www.streetshope.org.