From the Magazine: Mean Streets

The Housing Dilemma 

Homeless women who rely on street sex work to survive have limited support from mobile street outreach by homeless nonprofits Volunteers of America and Fourth Street Clinic, along with services from the Asian Association of Utah. But even in the nonprofit world, trouble isn’t always far away.

Fourth Street has scaled back its mobile EMT outreach van’s presence on Salt Lake’s streets. It’s gone from visiting motels and scouring abandoned parking lots for familiar faces to once-a-week visits to a three-year-old drop-in center run by refugee services agency Asian Association’s Gina Salazar, a survivor of human trafficking. One afternoon a week, women access services, get clean needles through harm reduction, hygiene kits, food, clothing and peer support.

Salazar quit AAU in early May after a client she knew for a decade was found dead in a drain. “I need to take a step back,” Salazar says. The client had been housed in an apartment but was isolated from supportive services. Salazar is attending monthly meetings led by the Junior League of Salt Lake to try to open a long-term home with support in the valley. “When they go to housing straight from the street, they don’t make it,” Salazar says.

In an upstairs room in a decrepit, two-story motel a few blocks from North Temple, Melanie Ellis explains why she’s close to losing her legs.

After she lost her child to the state five years ago, “I started using again because I convinced myself my son was better off without me,” says the 43-year-old. “I’ve been on a suicide mission ever since.”

After Ellis developed an abscess in her buttock from needle use, a surgeon used a wound vacuum sponge to help it heal. Ellis ripped the vacuum seal off and left the hospital, leaving the sponge inside her leg for so long she now faces losing both limbs.

Ellis needs to earn $50 a day to pay for her room, more to pay for her habit. She knows only one way to make that money—sex work. It’s a ring of hell from which Ellis, or the estimated 500 to 600 largely addicted women who live and work out of State Street, Main Street and North Temple’s seedy no-tell motels can’t escape, because there’s nowhere for them to go.

“The only way out is to find myself again,” Ellis said. “It’s just finding that reason to live again, feeling important enough.”

Ellis is not alone. Many homeless women in Salt Lake City do sex work to pay for the drugs they need to numb themselves to past and present trauma.

These women have been left out of a public debate driven by politicians, developers and local businesses seeking to close the Road Home shelter and herd the homeless from the city center towards three yet-to-be-built, short-stay “resource centers” set to open in 2019—one of which is for women. But the new women’s shelter will not meet the complex, long-term care needs of street sex workers, nor will it staunch the massive financial cost some of the women impose when they give birth to drug-addicted babies the state then has to pay $500,000 a year for to care for. In 2014, for example, 10 babies were born on State Street, according to service providers.

Local nonprofits focus on the homeless and refugees; agencies do try to help the women but the patchwork quilt of resources they stitch together is increasingly riddled with holes (see sidebar). It’s a sub-population of homeless that desperately needs someone to take point on coordinating care. Salt Lake City Council chairwoman Erin Mendenhall has been a passionate political advocate for homeless women whom she says are sex trafficking survivors, a term the women themselves don’t always agree with. “If none of these (nonprofit) organizations’ specific mandate is to assist survivors of human trafficking, then whose mandate is it?” Mendenhall asks.

Many of these women’s stories have their roots in child sexual abuse trauma. Ellis says as a child she never knew loving touches from adults, “unless it was crossing a line of violation.” Predators whose abuse threads trauma through children and homeless women’s lives aren’t as glaringly obvious as onetime media stereotypes of Cadillac-driving, fedora-wearing pimps suggested.

When sex-work veteran Angela Appleby lived in a State Street motel with her former female partner, who also did sex work, “I’d see boys with girlfriends who go out and ‘ho’ to meet both their needs,” she says. “There was a group of boys who’d pass girls around, the girls would dump them off and get on with their next ‘ho’ life.”

While Appleby waits to hear if she’s got a room at a downtown apartment complex for the chronically homeless, she lives with her boyfriend in his tent on public wasteland. Her criminal record and lack of work skills leave her few options, particularly when she can make $60 in a trick’s truck.

University of Utah graduate “Lucy” knows too well the price that comes with sex work’s quick bucks in a stranger’s car. The 32-year-old described getting into such a vehicle, as “an unexplainable feeling. For $50 or $100, you’re putting your life on the line to be able to eat and sleep. At that point you feel so worthless, you don’t even want to try to get better.” The men who preyed on her were pimps who “give us either drugs, shelter or money, but they’ll take it all away and beat you till you give in and do what they want.”

Lucy is one of the thousands of Utahns whose lives have been hammered into destitution by opioid addiction. She was prescribed pain pills following a car accident in 2010. When the doctor cut off the pills, she turned to heroin. In March 2017, she began living on the street and ‘dating’ to pay for her dope. The sex work “became easier. I turned myself off to thinking about it.”

With no dependents, she can’t get Medicaid and with no outstanding warrants, she can’t get a court-referral for drug treatment. “There needs to be a place for women to go and feel safe. I’m at that point I want to get help, to be sober. But there’s nowhere for me to go.”

The future of these women is inevitably tied to the city’s plans to redevelop State Street, including its December 2017-announced master transit plan. Local residents have bitterly complained for many years about no-tell motels as hubs of crime. But Mendenhall says “to ethically redevelop State Street, we need to address those needs of the most vulnerable populations that call that area home.”  Women like Lucy, Angela and Melanie.

Stephen Dark
Stephen Dark
Stephen Dark is a freelance journalist who's worked in London, Buenos Aires and now Salt Lake City.

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