CINCINNATI (AP) - Call it the School for Prostitutes.
It's not where women learn how to sell themselves. It's where women who already do learn how to break free of the life.
Prostitution is the No. 2 complaint of Cincinnati neighborhood leaders, second only to drugs, said Cincinnati police Capt. Howard Rahtz, who heads the vice squad.
Community leaders say men looking for sex troll streets mistaking residents for prostitutes. They take the women to abandoned buildings and, in some cases, have sex where children play. Drug dealers follow the women knowing they'll be customers.
For years, the only solution was arrest and release. Women arrested on mostly misdemeanor charges were usually ordered into drug treatment and put on probation. At most, they got 60 days jail.
Most landed back on the streets, sometimes on the same corner where police found them.
That's why Cincinnati Union Bethel, a 176-year-old, nonprofit social services agency, started Off the Streets, a program to help women get out of prostitution.
The women get counseling. They get support, something many haven't had since they first sold themselves for money. They get training and advice on careers. They get a clean, safe place to live. They talk to women who successfully left the life.
"This program offers comprehensive assistance to women who want to make some changes, women who literally want to get off the street," said Mary Carol Melton, program director.
Since April, more than a dozen women have come to the Off the Streets program wanting to break out of the cycle of selling sex, feeding drug habits and answering to pimps.
In a companion program, men charged with picking up prostitutes must attend a Saturday class where they learn how they harm the women, the neighborhoods and themselves. They hear from former prostitutes, health care workers and prosecutors who tell them how much trouble they can get in.
Success is already evident, Melton said:
- Six women have not used drugs or alcohol since and seven women have not been involved in any form of prostitution since entering the program. Others continue to indicate a decrease in substance use and prostitution.
- One woman, for the first time in years, did not use drugs after receiving her assistance check.
- Three women got jobs.
- None of the johns has been arrested since sitting in on the class.
Sheila Reisch, 44, came to the Anna Louise Inn, the downtown Cincinnati women's dormitory where Off the Streets is based, on May 25 looking for a place to stay. She got a room and a brochure about the program.
Reisch, who had been trading sex for money since "somewhere in the '80s," had tried other programs without success.
Still, she thought she'd try again.
"This one is different," said Reisch, whose short, groomed brown hair and pantsuit make her look ready for a day of work at the office. "No program before ever addressed prostitution, it was always just about drugs."
Cincinnati police statistics show how prevalent the problem is.
From Jan. 1 to June 30, 260 people were arrested on prostitution charges, including engaging in prostitution, prostituting while HIV positive, soliciting prostitution and loitering to solicit, records show.
At that pace, arrests for the same crimes will top last year's 430.
Some women have been arrested repeatedly.
Records show that over the last 2½ years, 20 women have been charged 10 or more times with prostitution. One 20-year-old woman racked up 16 prostitution charges since the start of 2005.
Eight people were HIV positive, records show. That means there is a good chance they are out spreading the disease.
"The system can't ignore these numbers," said Wendy Niehaus, director of Hamilton County Pre-trial Services. "They will go right back into the community."
They then head straight to neighborhoods already in crisis.
Over-the-Rhine, the West End, East Price Hill, Walnut Hills and the downtown business district are magnets for prostitutes.
Records show 865 of the prostitution charges over the last 2½ years were in Over-the-Rhine.
A planning committee of police, former prostitutes turned counselors, jail officials, the city prosecutor's office and community leaders spent more than a year deciding how best to target the problem.
"There is no simple solution," said Niehaus.
In the past, help given to women who want to change their lifestyle addressed only the most noticeable problems like mental illness, drugs or alcohol. It didn't address what happened later.
Schooling, a job and place to live are just as important, Melton said.
"We asked, 'What can the police do different? What can the court do different? What can the community do different? What can service providers do differently?"' Niehaus said.
The group focused on a prostitution program 2,300 miles away in San Francisco.
Norma Hotaling started the SAGE Project (Standing Against Global Exploitation) 14 years ago. It aims to help individuals caught up in violence and prostitution through trauma recovery services, substance abuse treatment, vocational training, housing assistance and legal advocacy.
Cincinnati is the fifth city in the country to emulate the program. St. Paul, Phoenix, Fresno and Kansas City have similar programs. Boston, Seattle and San Diego are looking at it, Hotaling said.
"It's a dream to watch the program being started elsewhere," Hotaling said.
One aspect of SAGE that's being replicated in Cincinnati is the use of former prostitutes as counselors.
Angela Pepper and Carol Thornton are certified by the state with addiction studies certificates, but just as important, they share a life experience with the women in the program.
"One of the coolest breakthroughs you get working in this type of field is when you see the light come on, when for the first time in years they say, 'I am somebody,"' said Pepper. "Our program is nonjudgmental.
"Trust me, Carol and I are the last two people to sit up and judge somebody, because we lived it," Pepper said.
Pepper, 47, of Clifton, said she grew up in a family that taught her morals and values, but her stubbornness trumped those lessons. When she was offered money for sex at age 15, she said yes because it seemed quick and easy.
She dropped out of school, got hooked on drugs and was homeless for years.
Finally in 1991 she said, "I can't do this anymore."
She said she was lucky. She found a counselor who cared about her.
"It's really a horrible way to live," Pepper said. "It's so degrading to even have to do it.
"Yes, I had some money, but you know I had to go and buy some dope just to deal with the feelings from even having done something like this with men who cared absolutely nothing about my body.
"Street prostitution I think is the worst," she said.
Thornton, 53, of Elmwood Place, turned to prostitution at age 32 when she had no money to buy diapers. She was arrested the first night.
"From that point on I would be out there because of the drugs," Thornton said. "I was sleeping in abandoned buildings, or up against a wall."
An arrest on drug charges a decade ago landed her in drug court, the program that finally helped her snap out of the street life.
More than a dozen women have come into Off the Streets since it opened in April, with six women active in the program, Melton said.
"It's extremely difficult to break the cycle," said Melton, who is also vice president of Resource Development for Cincinnati Union Bethel. "We know the women who come to us have experienced life stressors, trauma in so many different ways.
"It takes a lot of courage and lot of commitment to hang in there and make the life changes," Melton said.
Melton is paid by Cincinnati Union Bethel, but the rest of the program is funded by grants.
The Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati is giving $296,000 over three years and the program will get part of a $187,500 grant over three years from the Hamilton County Mental Health Board.
In addition to money spent, there is also money saved. Melton estimates with just the first six women, 478 jail days were saved. At $65 a day, that's $31,070 taxpayers didn't have to spend.
At first, the program spread by word of mouth, but more recently Pepper and Thornton have gone to the Hamilton County Jail to talk to women arrested for prostitution.
"We hear them say we've been waiting so long for something like this for us, that nobody ever took the time to care," Pepper said.
Pepper also approaches working prostitutes to tell them help is available.
Police, who have arrested the women so often they know many by name, spread the word too.
"Extremely difficult problem to get at," Rahtz said. "Off the Streets program is a huge step forward."
Kristina Thompson's probation officer helped her get into the program after spotting her working in Over-the-Rhine.
Like Reisch, the 24-year-old has tried to quit the life before.
Clean two months, she said it's the staff that makes the difference.
"Most of the treatments I've been through have counselors that went to college," she said. "But here they came from where we did."
Reisch said some days are harder than others, but she refuses to go back to the street.
It's been four months since she last walked the streets. In that time the program has taught her a lot about herself, she said.
"I'm a worthy person," she said. "Once you deal with the shame and guilt you're left with you.