'Lowest Of Low' Find Sisterhood On Streets

CRIME BEAT

Crime Scenes

July 24, 2009|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Nicole wanted to be a lawyer but instead, at the age of 23, is "on the stroll" on Calvert and on East 21st streets, at 1 a.m. this past Saturday, searching for the next trick. "She" is a "he," working the Old Goucher neighborhood in Lower Charles Village, an area notorious for liaisons with transgender prostitutes.

Nicole's story is typical - parents addicted to heroin, grandparents to alcohol, dropped out of high school at 17, sexually confused, hit the streets as a teenager to be sold to older men, robbed, raped, battered and abandoned. Nicole's story is also atypical - rents an apartment, stays away from drugs and raises two younger siblings.

"I'd do anything to stay off Calvert Street," Nicole says, only to quickly call it "my home away from home."

Nicole agreed to talk to a reporter (using her street name only) while working East 21st Street after being approached by Cydne D. Kimbrough, an advocate for the city's transgender community and director of a nonprofit group called Gender Learning Advocacy Support System of Baltimore.

Kimbrough, who lives in Old Goucher, was handing out condoms, advising the workers on health issues and trying to steer them away from streets where homeowners have complained about the influx of men barely dressed as women working as prostitutes, being loud, using profane language and littering front steps with dirty drug needles and used condoms.

There is another side to this nightly ritual that has lowered the quality of life for people living here, and that is the workers' sad tales of abuse, being used by pimps and rejected in virtually every part of society, even among many gays and lesbians. "We are the lowest of the low," said Monica Stevens, 55, who helps Kimbrough and says she kicked her lifelong drug habit and got off the streets 10 years ago.

Kimbrough is pushing for transitional housing to help workers who want a different life but have a tough time finding jobs and getting into drug treatment and shelters, where most places require that men be with men and women with women, no matter how they dress. That adds to feelings of gender confusion and isolation, the advocate said.

The transgender prostitutes moved into Old Goucher after being pushed out of midtown and then later an area just south of North Avenue, because of community complaints, increased policing and new development. They're now concentrated along North Calvert (quiet, residential and safe) and Charles (a well-lighted business district).

Angry residents of Old Goucher held a meeting with police in May to demand more patrols and arrests. Police put up new surveillance cameras on East 21st Street, their blinking blue lights a warning. This is where Kimbrough concentrated her efforts Saturday. "Keep this street quiet, and we're OK," she said.

But Kimbrough's thoughts mostly deal with the bigger picture - believing that removing the stigma of being transgender will let people feel accepted and more willing to go back to school and apply for jobs, and maybe get off the streets.

One worker, whom Nicole calls an aunt, said she got a job interview but needed money for a bus to get there. The worker was arrested on Calvert Street turning a trick for bus money, missed the interview and missed out on the job. She found another one as a clerk, was fired when the employer learned that she was a he dressed as a woman, only to get the job back after complaining.

"I don't need to trick this week because I got a job," the worker said while sitting on the steps of a rowhouse on East 21st Street, talking with Nicole and still dressed in her job uniform complete with ID tag.

Next week? Might be a different story.

Nicole said a good night brings in $600 and that clients include doctors and lawyers. During the interview, Nicole's eyes darted over to every car that went by.

It was 1:30 in the morning, homeowners were trying to sleep, streetwalkers were trying to work and customers were slowly circling the blocks trying to be discreet, looking for a forbidden entertainment that has turned a quiet neighborhood into a boisterous sex zone.

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