Why it's hard for prostitutes to get off the streets

Sandy Naiman, Sun Media

, Last Updated: 2:36 PM ET

When Natasha Falle was 15, she turned her first trick at a gambling party in Calgary's Chinatown. So it's no wonder today, counselling prostitutes at Toronto's Streetlight Support Services, that the youngest ones break her heart.

"I can see where they're heading, where they're going to be five or 10 years down the road, beaten and burnt-out, probably addicted to crack, like I was," says the fresh-faced 30-year-old who dresses more conservatively than the average schoolgirl, in jeans, a tight, but torso-covering T-shirt, her hair pulled into an ingenuous ponytail.

"I remember feeling caught-up in the glam and glitz at first, feeling the thrill of all the attention, even though it's unhealthy attention."

Falle stands, smoking a cigarette on the well-worn cement steps of Streetlight's headquarters, a 92-year-old former police station in downtown Toronto. She watches a sweet, soft-spoken 19-year-old prostitute we'll call "Allie" canter across the street, box of red-wrapped condoms tucked under her arm. She's just graduated from Streetlight's four-week "Choices" diversion and exit program for sex trade workers referred by the courts, so her prostitution-related charges will be dropped.

Since Choices began in 1997 (with full financial support from its counterpart "John School"), about 50% or 325 prostitutes have retired from the world's oldest profession.

'Out tricking'

But as "Allie" slides into a dark green Mazda Miata beside her pimp whose name is tattooed on her shoulder, Falle sighs. "She got into the business as a kid, like me, but she's not ready to leave yet. She'll probably be out tricking tonight."

Still, like the roughly 100 sex trade workers who graduate from Choices each year, "Allie" hasn't walked away untouched. "Streetlight is the best because they don't try to change what you do," she said, as a parting shot. So perhaps she'll be back. Many Choices alumna join Streetlight's family, returning voluntarily to partake of the myriad services this little agency alone offers any sex trade worker who wants acceptance and a safe haven to socialize and escape the systemic treachery and isolation of the profession.

In April, a new evening drop-in centre opened to offer computer classes, employment counselling and SmartServe training to equip them with employable skills should they decide they have to get out.

"It's not easy for these women to get out of prostitution," says Streetlight executive director Beverley McAleese. "It can take years because they get addicted to the lifestyle and they don't live by the rules of society -- working all night, partying 'til the wee hours, often hooked on drugs, making all this cash that's gone tomorrow.

"We don't believe in telling our clients what they need. We give them opportunities and teach them how to respect themselves. It's like quitting smoking. They come back and relapse, but we accept everybody at the place they're in when they walk through the front door."

Without financial resources, skills and experience to support themselves outside the sex trade, these women who see themselves solely as sex objects tend to slide back into prostitution to survive, especially if they have children to support.


Videos

Photos