News: Helping Prostitutes Escape the Street Life

Agency develops new program

This isn't "Prostitutes Anonymous" or a typical 12-step program. But Cincinnati's oldest social service agency is attempting to help women working in the world's oldest profession.

Cincinnati Union Bethel (CUB), founded in 1830, has long been dedicated to helping women, providing housing for disadvantaged women and families in the Anna Louise Inn downtown. CUB also operates child development centers, adult G.E.D classes, computer training classes and youth programs.

The agency's latest project is "Off the Streets," a neighborhood outreach designed to help and educate women who are prostitutes and the men who use their services.

CUB received a three-year, $296,000 implementation grant from the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati and is looking for additional funding. CUB is the lead agency of a collaboration that includes about 20 groups working together on the program.

Off the Streets is modeled on Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE), a similar project in San Francisco. SAGE, in operation since 1992, has helped thousands of women and children.

There are two components to Off the Streets, one for the "johns" and a peer group and facilitated help for prostitutes who want to change their lives.

Judges order men caught soliciting prostitutes to attend eight class sessions, including AIDS awareness and listening to stories of former hookers. The johns pay a fee for the classes, and the money helps fund the women's services.

The women's services will vary according to the individual and the help that each one needs. The program will accept any woman who has experienced prostitution in the past and is willing to make a change. The program is also taking referrals from the criminal justice system and other treatment programs.

Mary Carol Melton, the program director, is optimistic about this project. She believes each person has different reasons for engaging in prostitution, and it is the mission of the program to help them overcome their past and look toward a brighter, safer future.

"The whole drug use issue is almost 50/50 — those who began drug use and then prostitution, and those who started in prostitution and then went to drug use," Melton says.

Volunteers from groups such as AA and NA have come forward to offer peer group services on site and begin meetings at the program location on Lytle Street. Asked if Off the Streets were a 12-step program, Melton said yes and no. The group includes peer support and anonymity like 12-step programs, but there's no "big book" to show an individual the steps to follow to overcome the lifestyle.

"It is really sort of the whole emphasis of this program," Melton says. "It's hard to do that as an individual. Out there you spend a lot of years thinking you are not worth a whole lot or people telling you are not worth a whole lot. In a group setting, they see other women who are struggling with those kinds of things, and we really hope that does empower them to think about what else they might be doing and what changes they can make.

"It is really tough to be kind of out there on your own, and really that is the whole premise of the program. If we can put the structure together to help somebody walk through that, they are going to have a much better chance." ©

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