Tough road out

"Can I have a sandwich?" asks Teresa, as she approaches the van. "I’m starving."

"Your hair looks cute," says Jeannie, handing her a turkey and cheese on whole wheat.

"The back’s not real," Teresa explains, stroking the blond extension. Her short, tight cotton skirt is sprinkled with big blue flowers. Her matching fitted top is cut low, exposing thick scars across her chest. "I’m way too fat for this outfit," she says, stepping away from the van so Jeannie can get a look at her. A layer of flesh hangs over her skirt; hips bulge through the knit fabric.

"No you’re not," Jeannie assures her. "You look great."

Teresa’s pale, pockmarked skin contrasts with her bright pink lipstick. Her eyes are caked with black mascara, making them hard to see.

"You know what I need – " says Teresa. Before she finishes her sentence, Jeannie hands her a bleach kit, for cleaning needles.

Teresa is a heroin addict, like many of the women who parade themselves along Michigan Avenue near Junction in Detroit. Prostitution supports their drug habit.

Jaime, who is driving the van, asks Teresa when she was born and records her age, 28, on a sheet of paper. Jeannie gives her a handful of condoms before they drive on.

Jaime and Jeannie are volunteers at Alternatives For Girls (AFG), a Detroit-based nonprofit organization that provides support and resources – such as the Street Outreach program – to troubled girls and women. Staff patrol Detroit streets for 20 hours a week total, divided into two- and three-hour shifts. When they encounter prostitutes, drug addicts and others at risk, they offer bleach kits, condoms, food, clothing, shelter and transportation to medical centers. AFG tracks the number of women it serves each shift and their ages – information used to apply for public and private funding. Teresa is just one of about 15 women I watched Jaime and Jeannie assist during a two-hour afternoon shift recently.

"Ninety-nine percent of our clients have drug addictions," explains Jaime, a 21-year-old Wayne State University student with soft, red hair. Unlike other major cities, where prostitution can be a way to earn a living, Jaime says that in Detroit it is mostly a means for getting high: Most of the prostitutes they work with earn about $130 a day, but spend almost every nickel on heroin or crack.

"Most women don’t have pimps," says Jaime, filling in the details of her clients’ lives. "You do see it, but it’s rare."

The van slowly rolls on, passing auto shops, dilapidated storefronts, crumbling overpasses. Parked cars crowd the street, exhaust blows from running engines. It is a sunny, cool day on Michigan Avenue; the spring wind blows clouds along the blue sky. Sweltering temperatures have not yet turned the sidewalks into urban ovens, nor scorched the prostitutes who strut along them.

Blocks ahead of the van, a black, white and red billboard hangs over the strip with an ironic demand: "Motown. Keep it clean."

Jeannie points to an African-American woman across the street. "She’s working," she says. Hoping to catch up with her, Jaime makes a left and drives around the block along a tame residential neighborhood. Parents sit with kids on front porches. A little girl with dark short hair and a pleated white dress walks with another girl who looks like an older sister; they are both children. A crossing guard helps school kids make their way across Michigan near Trenton.

The woman Jeannie spotted is nowhere in sight, but a blonde with braids comes to the van. "Hi, how are you?" asks Jeannie.

"Good. How are you?" she responds. She sees a passing car that looks like a customer and jumps away from the van, "I got to get a date," she says, and is gone.

"Your relationship changes daily," explains Jaime about the brief interaction. "Last time, she talked to us for a half-hour. This time she needed a date."

We park in front of a large silver van which houses a needle exchange sponsored by the Michigan AIDS Fund. Jeannie and I talk to the two women running it. Three days a week they set up the mobile shop on Vernor and one day they park on Michigan. Fresh needles and free AIDS testing are available. One man who approaches the van doesn’t want needles. He needs a razor so he can shave and is handed a hygiene kit. "Tell your friends we’re here," says one of the workers.

A young, white man in a baseball cap speaks cryptically. Before he continues, Jeannie and I leave to give him privacy. She explains that he wants needles and is asking for different sizes. "You use different size needles for different sites," she says. "Some veins are more delicate than others." It is strange listening to the fresh-faced 25-year-old describe the details of heroin use. We climb back into the van.

"I don’t think it’s easy to leave this lifestyle, from what I can see," says Jaime, as we motor down Michigan. "If you want to stop using, treatment centers put you on a 30-day waiting list."

By then, she says, most addicts change their mind about wanting to get clean. "A drug addict who has money and is in the corporate world can get into a drug treatment center that day because they have insurance."

"They probably get the finest withdrawal medicine," says Jeannie. "And cable too," adds Jaime, with a laugh.

An older woman approaches the van. Her name is Tammy. "Well, well, well," she says, smiling at the familiar faces.

"I saw your daughter last week," says Jaime.

"You did?" remarks Tammy, looking distracted. "It’s dead out here today." She watches the passing cars.

Jeannie hands her an HIV prevention kit, but Tammy refuses. "I know all about that," she says. Tammy is more interested in finding a customer. "I can’t seem to catch anyone’s eye."

Jaime asks when her daughter was born. She pauses, then says, "8-21-70. I can’t even remember my own daughter’s birthday."

"That’s OK, she couldn’t remember yours too," says Jaime.

"I sat out here three hours and didn’t get anything," says the frustrated 56-year-old mother. "They want five- and ten-dollar dates. No. No. No. They won’t get that from me. I’ll stay out here till doomsday before I do that."

Jeannie gives her a sandwich and condoms and says goodbye.

When she’s gone, Jaime explains that Tammy has a daughter, Samantha. "Tammy was a stripper then got into heroin. Her daughter is a prostitute and does heroin too. I think they look out for each other."

Near Lonyo and Michigan, Jeannie spots two young women. One looks about 17, the other 19. "Look at those two," she says. "I’m not sure they’re working."

"I think they are," says Jaime. "They’re just little girls."

Jeannie reaches for some condoms to offer them, a sure way to lure new clients. Jaime drives the van around the block, but when we turn the corner it’s too late. "The cops got ’em," observes Jeannie.

While we’re watching the young girls in the rearview mirror, another woman approaches. "I need some condoms," says the bleached blonde with dark lip liner. "Them silver condoms are breaking in my hand. You need to throw them away," she orders.

Jaime tells her about the pair pulled over by the cops. "OK, see ya," says the blonde, who sneaks away, fearful that she will be picked up next.

"I wasn’t warning her," says Jaime. "I was just making conversation. It’s illegal for us to tell prostitutes to watch out for cops."

After the police let them go, the two girls walk by the van. "Do you want some condoms?" asks Jeannie, handing them a bag and asking their names. Angel and Paradise are beautiful Hispanic girls who look as if they just started streetwalking that day.

Jeannie tells them that AFG’s phone number and other resources are in the bag with the condoms. "I still have your pamphlet," says Paradise. "Can I have another one, please?" I imagine her giving it to a friend in need and want to believe this is a sign of hope.

Paradise wears a black T-shirt with a silver butterfly in the center. Unlike the other prostitutes we met on Michigan, she looks ashamed; she barely raises her dark brown eyes.

A tight, short blue dress just covers Angel’s strong frame. With her combed hair, purse and high heels, she reminds me of a child playing dress-up or an eager teen practicing for her first high school date.

"Can we have a glass of water?" asks Paradise.

"We have juice," says Jeannie, handing her a cup. "Would you like a sandwich?" They both take one.

As we drive off, Jaime looks in the rearview mirror shaking her head. "Latino girls," she says. "Their fathers will kill them."

That is, if the street doesn’t get them first.