Getting off the streets Alternatives: Drug-addicted prostitutes, exploited by too many, can find support in You Are Never Alone, a program that deals with the women as victims, not criminals.

November 27, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

She's 18 years old, barely 5 feet tall and dressed in baggy jeans and black patent-leather Mary Janes.

When Southern District police Officer Will Narango saw Shemeka Wise, he knew she didn't belong with the estimated 150 prostitutes who regularly cruise the 60-square-block area of Southwest Baltimore he patrols daily.

"She grew up in [drug addiction]; she's never known anything else. But she's young, she could change -- my main objective is to offer these gals an alternative," Narango said.

So Narango referred Wise, who said she's addicted to heroin but not a prostitute, to You Are Never Alone (YANA). The recently launched program, unique in Baltimore, is designed "to help prostitutes and other vulnerable women find alternatives," said founder Sidney-Anne "Syd" Ford, a social worker.

YANA's goal is to treat the women as victims, not criminals, to help them escape a vicious cycle in which the women move from trick to dealer and are exploited by both. The fledgling program will offer the women Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow at Monroe Street United Methodist Church, 400 S. Monroe St.

YANA is one of about two dozen such groups in cities across the country, set up to help prostitutes who are drug addicts and walk the streets looking for business, said Carol Leigh, spokeswoman for COYOTE, a San Francisco-based prostitutes' rights group.

Her words are echoed by many southwest city residents who say prostitution lowers property values, provides a poor environment in which to raise children and generally leads to further decay of the working-class neighborhoods off such thoroughfares as Monroe Street and Wilkens Avenue.

"We want this program because our neighbors know these girls," said Anne Ames, president of New Southwest Community Association. "They'll see a girl and say, 'She used to be so pretty. Look at how thin she is.' You see them being yanked around by their hair. They're terribly abused. It's so sad."

Ford is pursuing a doctoral degree in social work at Catholic University and has held a number of social-work jobs. Intermittently, during the past five years, Ford was a social worker at Graceland Park-O'Donnell Heights Elementary School, where she handled cases of suspected sexual abuse and counseled families.

In 1992, she was a social worker in a Bon Secours Hospital program called House Calls, where hospital employees work with homebound elderly people to help them maintain their independence. It was her relationship with Bon Secours officials that helped Ford establish YANA -- an idea she developed last summer when she "wanted to get back to street-level work."

Several hospital officials, including two doctors, are on -YANA's board of directors, and the hospital provides medical care and other services for women referred by Ford. YANA will have offices in a building the hospital is renovating at Fulton Avenue and West Fayette Street, she said.

"I think it's a program that's tremendously needed because no one is really attending to the needs of prostitutes in our area," said Sister Nancy Glynn, a member of the Bon Secours religious order who works in the hospital's community services department.

Ford is very protective of the women she counsels, going so far as to talk to the men who abuse them and to discourage police from arresting the women.

One recent evening, Ford decided that sandwiches left over from a YANA board meeting should be delivered to some of the women she had counseled. With George Kleb, Bon Secours' director of community services, driving, Ford carried the food to Formstone-covered rowhouses off Monroe Street and to women walking along Washington Boulevard, a popular spot for prostitution.

Typically, the streetwalkers looking for "dates" regarded Ford suspiciously; a few women refused to talk to her. But most took a sandwich and a YANA business card.

A few women will call her, asking for help to get off drugs, Ford said. After an initial consultation, usually in Ford's "office" -- her 1990 Geo Prizm -- she tries to work on such immediate needs as getting the women clothing, food and medical care.

Some of the women, like Wise, say they want to get into a drug-treatment program.

Friday, after a two-day stay at Bon Secours to go through drug detoxification, Wise told Ford she was willing to go to a nearby VTC home for drug-addicted women operated by Victory Outreach, a church-based program that uses fasting and praying to help women kick drugs.

Ford accompanied Wise to the home across West Baltimore Street from the hospital, where Wise was read the house rules, which include no phone calls during the week, no cursing, no drug or alcohol use and mandatory church attendance three times a week. By Saturday, Wise had left the program, Ford said. But Ford isn't giving up on her.

"If she calls, I'll definitely talk to her," Ford said. "That's what I'm here for."

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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