By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
"My life before coming here..." she pauses for a moment. We've made our way to the front patio. The Gratitude House is just off Dixie Highway, in a neighborhood thick with rough bars and garages, but at the end of North Lakeside Court, it's quiet. Besides our voices, all we can hear are a train rumbling in the distance and the occasional tinkle of wind chimes. With her long, curly black hair and her gold hoop earrings, Reese resembles a gypsy. Her black beaded shirt and long skirt add to the effect. So do her memories of a wayward life.
Reese lights up a cigarette. While we speak she smokes one after another. "My dad was very physically abusive. Not just spanking you, but putting your head through a wall." She takes a long drag. "I was raped by my uncle when I was six. By the time most kids started school, I was already a mess."
She began abusing drugs and alcohol when she was 11, when she and her friends pitched in and bought a couple of bottles of Boone's Farm wine. Reese drank at least one of the bottles all by herself, and even though she threw up most of the night, she also got a taste of what she thought it felt like to be normal. "I felt great. I wasn't afraid. It took away my feelings; I didn't have a dad beating me up, there was no molestation. It made me feel very safe."
Shortly thereafter her family moved from Michigan to West Palm Beach, and her parents began smoking pot. The beatings ceased, and Reese got the impression that drugs might be the answer to her problems. She graduated from grass to shooting cocaine in high school.
"I did as much as I could, whenever I could. I did whatever was necessary to get it and to keep it," she remembers. She eventually wound up cruising local bars, looking for someone to give her money and a fix. In return she offered sex.
"As far as standing on Dixie, I never did that. But if you had money and you had drugs..." She trails off and contemplates the comparison between hooking on the street and what she did. "It's the same thing," she declares. "It's the same kind of trade. It's just a different location." She was 14 when she made her first such trade-off; the barter lasted for 16 years.
She married twice along the way. Her first husband beat her, and her second gave her someone with whom to share crack. She gave up her first child (from her first marriage) for adoption. The second she saw as a sign from God. "My son pushed me to quit. I thought, "God's giving me a second chance and I'm screwing up,'" she remembers.
At age 30 she finally got clean, with the help of the Gratitude House and a local recovery program. Today, in addition to her full-time job, she volunteers for Toys for Tots, participates in an AIDS walk every year, and sponsors women in 12-step recovery. She also lectures for the Prostitution Impact Prevention Education Program (PIPE), a class sponsored by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. The class is offered as an option to johns who are repeat offenders. The alternative? Sixty days in jail.
"I tell them that females are more than sex objects. I tell them that it's OK to ask for what they want at home. I explain to them what it's like to walk up to a car, scared, jonesing for a hit, and wondering "How can I set him up? How can I rob him?'" says Reese. "The reality is that you end up sticking your face on some sweaty unclean guy.
"It's a horrendous life to stay out there. It really is. But you can change. Help is always around the corner. If you want it, it's there."
According to Lt. Richy Allen and his superior, Maj. Kyle Berwick, Hollywood prostitutes don't want any help. In an attempt to set up a countywide facility similar to Gratitude House, Berwick last year took an informal survey of 30-plus local hookers, asking them if they would welcome such a program. He was surprised by the response. "The girls weren't all that interested," he says. "They have no pimps, and they weren't getting beat up. They're more like independent contractors."
"We're going to propose it anyway. Sometimes you have to force these girls to see what it is they're doing," adds Allen.
Stephanie has blown me off once more. I've called the Antique, the Royal Inn, and the Hill Motel, but she isn't registered at any of them. I've driven up and down Federal Highway for the last half hour, and now I've decided to park and search for her on foot. If she's on a side street, she'd be hard to spot from a moving car. I walk past the neon glare of cheap motels and gas stations, past unlit strip malls, past a dust devil of napkins and newspaper that twirls at the foot of an empty parking lot. At midnight on Sunday, the stretch of Federal between Young Circle and Sheridan Street has all the bustle of a ghost town.