By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
Psssssssssssssssssssssss. Somebody hisses. I turn around and see a man standing beneath a streetlight about eight yards away, beckoning me over with his hand. I shake my head. He holds out what looks like a quart of malt liquor.
"Come here for a second. Commmeeeeere," he drawls. "I wanna ask you something." I stop walking and stare at him. He smiles at me. "Whatcha looking for?" he asks and takes a step toward me. He's short, with beefy arms, bad teeth, and a faded red baseball cap pushed back from his brow. Besides us, there's no one on the street. No one. I think this might be a good time to head back to my car. His psssssssssss follows me down the block.
Before Jennifer found her way to the Broward Outreach Center (BOC), she did a lot of walking. "Sometimes I walked for five or six hours straight," says the 24-year-old. "My feet were bloody, swollen." Jennifer is a pseudonym; her real name came to her with some onerous baggage. "When I was 17, my mother told me she named me after a prostitute in a soap opera. I just wanted to go through the experience. Find out what men really wanted. I felt like I was doing my job, living up to my name," she explains.
She sits at the Center's conference-room table wearing a nylon and faux-fur jacket. A plastic ring shaped like a fly adorns the index finger of her left hand; because she moves her hands when she speaks, the insect always appears to be in whirling flight. Sort of like Jennifer. A fuzzy brown halo of hair frames her young face. She says she's going to grow it long and have bigger hair than Chaka Khan. Often, when she's making a point, her dark eyes bulge.
Jennifer's father physically and verbally abused her on a regular basis. "Belt buckles, full beer cans, a lamp, anything he could get his hands on. As long as he hurt us, he felt like he was acting like a father," she recalls. She's not cringing at the memory. Her stance is tough and matter-of-fact as she recounts living with an alcoholic parent. "I would never let him touch my face," she says, jutting her chin out. "That was my issue."
BOC case manager Don Sinclair says that childhood abuse is common among the residents at the center. "They have a history of abusive relationships. If you have a history of abuse and you're out prostituting, you're just living the life you know," Sinclair says.
But Jennifer didn't jump from her house to the streets. At age 19 she eased her way into the life by first working Miami strip clubs. She says she didn't take drugs or even drink while she was dancing, a lifelong love that began when her Michael Jackson impersonating uncle taught her some moves. "I avoided the champagne room. That area, huh," she grunts, "that was prostitution," she says. But eventually she relented, scoring $400 bucks from a patron at a strip club. "He ends up being my boyfriend -- the kind that had to give me money anytime we had sex."
The pair eventually split; Jennifer moved to Pembroke Pines, where she tried escorting. "'Cause that was the legal way," she explains. "It's supposed to be a date, but it escalates. I was taking home $500 a day, but I didn't like dealing with the guys. They was always "buttered up,'" she says, referring to her customers' predilection for cocaine. "To take care of somebody like that, it takes you an hour." She laughs and throws back her head. "No time for small talk."
While the money was great, Jennifer abhorred the lack of control she had over whom she'd date and when. She says she got fed up and walked out on a john one day. Instead of returning to the motel where she then lived -- the California Dream Inn -- she hit the streets. "I just left. Kept on walking. Left all my stuff, shoes, jewelry, clothes. Everything.
"Men start picking me up. Every day I have a place to sleep. Men that are lonely, men that have money. I'd walk at night, on Federal Highway, A1A. I wasn't presenting myself as a prostitute. I gave them attitude," she boasts.
Yet she also claims that "having sex in a champagne room is different from the street, let me tell you." She also admits to "having done 12 guys" while trying to score some grass.
Jennifer contradicts herself. She has difficulty remembering dates. One minute she derides the escort services for their misleading employment ads. The next she talks about returning to the work after she leaves the center. Sinclair says the confusion is common. "When you have people who have been using and living on the streets for some time, it's difficult for them to sort things out," he explains.
A few weeks before she was referred to the center, Jennifer said she heard a voice while sitting on the park bench on which she'd slept the night before. "I hear, "Come on.' Then I hear, "Lucky.' I ask the guy I'm with, but he don't hear anything." Her eyes grow wide with the memory. "I don't know whatthat was about."