"The Life" has taken you through the complicated issue of prostitution. As a community, how can all these pieces be unraveled? Where do you start? Whose job is it to take on the task?
"No one wants to look at the dark side," commented Louise Coggins, LCSW at Trinity Wellness. "What is our job? We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers. What are we doing - just ignoring this, or saying, 'Oh, look at them, they're choosing that lifestyle,' or let's blame them or let's throw them in jail like it's getting any better."
Prostitution is very easy to get into, but very hard to get out of.
If it was an easy, enjoyable job then everyone would be doing it. If there was a clear path to a better life, the women walking the streets today wouldn't be doing it tomorrow.
"I think people can see it in a way where they can empathize with it when you ask the question, 'Who of you have had a job that you didn't love?' raise your hand," Attorney Lindsey Roberson explained. "And then you say, 'Now keep your hand raised if you LEFT the moment you realized you didn't like that job.' What? None of you? None of you left at that moment? Why did you stay?'"
The answers are the same whether we are talking about prostitution or another job: I needed the money. I needed a roof over my head. I have bills to pay. I'm scared of what will happen if I just leave.
"You have to be willing to help yourself before someone else can help you," Detective Evan Luther reminded.
Coggins believes a big part of the solution lies in attacking the demand - the Johns, pimps and online platforms that facilitate the transactions. Her belief is shared by many, including a growing number of other countries who have started decriminalizing the sale of sex and raising steep penalties against the purchase of sex.
Legislation will not change in time for many of the people out on the streets tonight. For now, a severely limited number of local resources exist to help women transition out of The Life.
The first hurdle is typically shelter away from the motels and pimps.
"That's where our name comes in: A Safe Place," said Cary Ramsay with A Safe Place. "A woman needs to be able to step out of the life and have a pause almost and say, 'Okay, this is a safe time that you can begin to unravel all of these pieces.'"
A Safe Place offers temporary housing in one of three available bedrooms at an undisclosed location. The women's children can also stay with their moms in this safe housing.
Adequate funding to maintain this house and all their services (counseling, vocational assessment, hot meals, etc.) is a constant struggle. The competition for the non-profit dollar is fierce in Wilmington, and the organization is limited in advertising campaigns given the strict need to protect the women seeking shelter from them.
"What does success look like for the people we work with?" Ramsay asked. "That success is going to look really different. It's going to be measured in very small amounts over a very long period of time."
Women are usually aggressive and distant after coming off the streets. It would be completely unrealistic to tell her to get a job and expect her to be successful in a traditional work environment. She has to be sober before any of that can even happen.
Committing to and finding affordable, long-term drug treatment in the Cape Fear region is the next battle.
"We need rehabs," Kasi pleaded. "I've been trying to get into rehab for months, months. I can get into a detox facility, but that's seven to 10 days and they kick you out. As far as long term, it's not going to happen. If you don't have money or insurance, you don't get in. One place costs $10,000 cash money, to get in. How the hell do you expect me to come up with $10,000 when I can't come up with the $20 to get a bag of dope to not be sick? And I'm coming to you asking for help."
Even if a girl is sober, she likely has a criminal record, is used to living in chaos and accustomed to making hundreds of dollars in cash on a daily basis.
"What are they going to do? What is their job history? They don't have job experience," Coggins said. "They don't have education. They're now a convicted criminal. Where are they going to get a job? Who's gonna hire them?"
"To walk out and apply for a job and say, 'Hi! Here I am! I've got all these skills to offer,' it's going to feel pretty ludicrous to a woman," said Ramsay. "She's going to be harsh. She's going to be aggressive. That's how trauma manifests itself. When you take them out of a situation you're expecting them to go from who they are to who they're not overnight, without all the things in place to help them heal."
Still, ask any woman who got out of The Life and they'll tell you, it's worth it.
"That $7.25 an hour job - if you put all of your effort you put into prostituting and doing drugs into your life, your life is going to be way better," promised Patty, who stopped prostituting in 2004. "Will it be difficult? Yeah, it will be difficult. But right now your life isn't easy anyway."
At the end of every interview with the women, all except one said she never wanted to go back out again. Some made good on their promise thanks to supportive family and friends. Others were back on the streets or had re-posted their ads the next day.
- Kasi Smith is currently in NHC Detention Center awaiting trial. She was charged with the prostitution of a minor this past fall. Upon her release she hopes to find a long-term treatment facility.
- Marcus Tarter's bond was reduced to $2 million. He is currently in NHC Detention Center awaiting trial.
- Taylor went back to the streets after a family tragedy. She is currently looking for a long-term rehab and hopes to leave The Life for good.
- Alexa is now in a serious relationship. She is going back to school and looking for a job.
- "The Johns" arrested in BCSO operation "Saving Grace" are now processing through the court system. None of the cases have been dismissed.
Special thanks to David Blais Photography for providing drone footage and Lighthouse Investigative Services.