On the Street, Selling Hope
Former Prostitute Offers Others the Chance to Change
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Late one Friday afternoon, a car pulled up to Jackie McReynolds on a busy city street. Three men forced her inside and drove her to an alley, where they punched, choked and raped her.
That day in 1987, McReynolds started thinking about leaving the prostitution business, which she did four years later. "I thought I was going to die right then and there," she said.
McReynolds, 50, still prowls the streets, only she hopes to help women who are following the same destructive path that defined her life for so many years. She tempts those who have been arrested with this offer: Spend four months with her, interning and learning life skills, for the chance to avoid up to six months in jail.
Her program is called Angels Project Power. Nakita Harrison, 34, a sex worker for nearly two decades, was in and out of jail before signing up a year ago. She now rents a furnished apartment from the group and works as a grocery cashier, her first legitimate job.
"She speaks our language," Harrison said. "She knows us and allows us to be ourselves as long as we remain respectful to her and the other women in the group."
Many of these women, ages 18 to 60, are mothers, grandmothers and even great-grandmothers. They would blend in easily in a grocery store line or at midweek church services. Their clothes are baggy, not tight. Instead of high heels, many go to work in tennis shoes. Most find their clients on the street, out in the open, with little protection from sexually transmitted diseases, violence and arrest.
Most of the women are trying to support their drug habits, and others are engaged in "survival sex" to pay the bills or buy food for their children, McReynolds said.
"Putting these women in jail isn't going to solve the problem. They just become repeat offenders," McReynolds said. "They have to change from within."
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Angels Project Power, started in 2004, is a way to prod that change along.
The program got its name from the celestial beings McReynolds credits with keeping her alive when she was on the street. It includes counseling sessions, literacy classes, other coursework, and internships with retail businesses and other local employers.
McReynolds and her counselors go to court to identify women who could use their help. They submit reports to judges about participants. But the hardest work comes in the daily meetings with 40 or so women on the first floor of a Northeast Washington apartment building, where the program is based.