The women walk along several thoroughfares of south St. Louis, often identified with a Polar Pop Styrofoam cup in hand. Men pull up in their cars, the financial terms are agreed upon and the women hop in the vehicle.
Earlier this summer, neighbors had enough, and enlisted their alderwoman and the police in helping to crack down on the prostitution. Several times the police went undercover and made multiple arrests of the women and their customers. Media reports noted that many of the women are homeless or addicted to drugs.
St. Louis Police Captain Steven Mueller said police officers arrest the same women "over and over again. ... We see them day after day, in and out of the justice system."
In the past, St. Anthony's Food Pantry staff and members of the In God's Hands program at St. Alban Roe Parish in Wildwood have met the women — some of whom have children — as they seek help with material needs, but they haven't had a comprehensive approach to helping them. Now the agencies formed a partnership with Helping Hand Me Downs, the St. Louis City Human Services Department and the Missouri Probation and Parole office, Mercy Health System, the city municipal court, police officers, firefighters and businesses to help the women get out of prostitution.
Walter Roddy of In God's Hands, which has helped the poor for more than 12 years, said he found the recent news reports of the situation in south St. Louis disturbing. That's when his program helped put together a team to direct intensive social services to help women who want to change their situation.
The court system is a big help by diverting women who want help to meet with Sister Connie Probst, OSF, of St. Anthony's.
"There's so many situations that developed and came together with this that you can see it's all driven by God," Roddy said. "We're trying to do this in a loving way — 'Love thy neighbor' — and with referral to social workers to consult with the women to ensure they move up in life."
A light is entering the "dark void" that the women have experienced, Roddy added.
On the streets
To face the issue, Sister Connie is distributing referral cards to several locations, including the convenience stores where the Polar Pops are sold. The cards, also handed out by police and courts, ask women who are tired of their body being used and abused to come to St. Anthony's Food Pantry for confidential help with food, safe housing, child care, judicial matters and employment.
In consultation with Sister Connie, neighborhood leaders are distributing the referral cards to the women on the streets. On a Friday night earlier this month, the Franciscan Sister of Our Lady of Perpetual Help joined Lynette Murphy and Cheryl Harwick in searching for women on the streets looking for customers. They spotted a woman, maybe 18 or 19, who walked past Bellerive Park. Getting out of Sister Connie's car, Harwick approached the woman, handed her the card and chatted with her a few moments.
The woman told Harwick she'd been on the streets for a year and was afraid and tired of it. Harwick informed her of the wrap-around services being provided. "I see potential in her eyes. I could see she didn't want to be out there," Harwick said.
St. Anthony's is the gateway for the women and makes sure they are sincere about changing their lives, Sister Connie said. In going out and encountering the women, she said, the approach is to just hand out the card and say, "You might want to consider this," or "If you want to change what you're doing, check this out."
The Franciscan Sister of Our Lady of Perpetual Help recently visited separately with three women who took the cards and want help. One is addicted to heroin after being in recovery for several years. The other woman had been abused by a man and left him. A single parent and needing an income, she put an ad online for men who want massages and fell into prostitution from there. The other woman didn't think anyone would answer her call for help — she didn't think anyone cared for her.
The goal is "a total transformation in the woman's life," but it may take several tries before meeting success, Sister Connie said.
Medical, mental health and addiction referrals are used when necessary. Helping Hand-Me Downs is playing a critical role. The agency serving children and families meets their immediate needs and connects them with life-changing resources that foster independence. More than 100 agencies, hospitals and shelters refer families to the program which assist them in finding stable employment and safe housing.
Stephanie Williamson, founder and director of Helping Hand-Me Downs, said the goal is to eliminate barriers that prevent prostitutes from getting out of that line of work. "If they're prostituting themselves to put food on the table for their kids, for example, we want to make sure that's not an issue any more. If they need a job that pays a decent salary, we have job coaches who will help them write a resume, give them a list of jobs and encourage them and assist them in finding that job."
Child care and safe, affordable housing, away from the area where they currently live, also are important factors, she said, "so they're not easily drawn back into that lifestyle. Our goal is to little by little build trust, build a relationship in helping them get out for good. It's our goal to have a relationship long term" while showing the women unconditional kindness and love that "resonates the love of Christ to them."
Father Freddy Amalraj, associate pastor of St. Alban Roe, said the Catholic Church has a history of helping prostitutes change their lives. For example, in the 1700s Blessed Gennaro Sarnelli, a Redemptorist priest from Naples, Italy, dedicated himself to the rehabilitation of girls at risk of becoming prostitutes.
"It's a question of justice, mercy and acceptance," Father Amalraj said. "They're traditionally looked upon as sinners, people who do not belong as part of our community."
The depth of the problem is alarming, he said, "and we as a Christian community has a great responsibility toward them. Prosecution by itself treats a symptom. The deeper issues are what really need to be taken care of. The roots of it are socio-economic and deeply spiritual as well. They need to feel loved and accepted."
Captain Mueller of the St. Louis police department said it's good to see the community effort to help prostitutes get off the streets and out of the jails. "Anything that can interrupt that cycle will benefit the women and the neighborhood, he said.
>> Pathway from Prostitution
The mission of the Pathway from Prostitution Partnership Program is to empower women to leave prostitution and make better lives for themselves and their families by coordinating community resources to provide basic necessities and overall support.
The community rallied to create a network of resources that act as a safety net for women seeking to leave life on the streets. The courts, mental health professionals, social service agencies, parishes and private donors ensure the women receive the assistance and support to create a new life of independence.
Assistance is needed in mentoring a woman/family, donating money to sponsor services, serve on the oversight board, donate housewares and pray for families impacted by prostitution. Contact In God's Hands. c/0 St. Alban Roe Parish, 2001 Shepard Road, Wildwood, MO 63038 or (636) 458-2977. Monetary donations also can be made online at www.stlouisreview.com/jK2. RELATED ARTICLE(S):Church's stand against prostitution puts it in middle of policy debates