By E. C. GOGOLAK
New York Times~At the age of 14, Ann ran away from home. She had been living with her aunt and uncle in the South Bronx, a situation made untenable, she said, because she was frequently being raped by her cousin.
With very few options on the street, Ann soon accepted an offer of housing from a man whom she began to think of as her boyfriend. Her view of him would change with each beating he administered, and the many paid sexual liaisons she would have for him.
He would take her to Manida Street, a section of the Hunts Point neighborhood in the Bronx that is notorious for prostitution.
“I would go out there and I would give him the money,” said Ann, who is now 25, and, fearing retaliation, spoke on the condition that only her middle name be published. “And he would beat me up.”
Her experience is not unusual. The Justice Department has estimated that about 450,000 children run away from home every year and that one-third of teenagers on the street will be approached by a pimp within 48 hours of leaving home.
The situation can be particularly acute in New York City, where there are an estimated 3,800 homeless children but only 250 city-financed youth shelter beds.
In June, the City Council held a hearing to consider granting more funds for services for runaway and homeless youths; the Council ultimately decided against the request.
The money from the state that is funneled into the budget for beds and services for runaway and homeless youths has been cut more than half since 2008, to about $745,000.
A joint study released in May by Covenant House and Fordham University, which interviewed nearly 200 randomly selected runaway and homeless youths in New York City over the last year, found that nearly one in four participants either had been victims of trafficking or had exchanged sex for basic needs like food and shelter.
Of those participants, almost half reported doing so because they had no safe place to sleep.
“The stories look very, very similar. Depressingly similar,” said Rachel Lloyd, the founder and chief executive of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, or GEMS, an organization that provides services to youths in the city who are caught up in trafficking or otherwise exploited.
“There has been trauma, abuse, neglect, something that is going on,” Ms. Lloyd said. And there was an intervention or a failed intervention. Then they meet a boy, a man, a friend.
“It’s, ‘I ran away, I was sleeping on the trains for two days, I met a guy. He was nice to me. He said he’d take care of me,’ ” explained Ms. Lloyd, herself a former prostitute. “Then adult predators take advantage of them, very quickly.”
Even when children make it to the shelters, there is no guarantee that a bed will be available; Covenant House turns away 200 to 400 children each month. And the pimps know that those who tend to approach Covenant House may be vulnerable.
“Kids tell us, ‘I was down the block and this guy offered me a place to stay,’ ” said Simone Thompson, director of operations at Covenant House.
A pizza shop at Ninth Avenue and 41st Street, about a block from the shelter, she said, is a popular target area. On West 41st Street, between the pizza shop and the shelter, there is a block of scaffolding that the Covenant House staff tells children to avoid, because it is another hot spot for pimps on the prowl for new recruits.
“You just don’t know who is who,” Ms. Thompson said.
Victoria, 20, sat quietly in an office in Covenant House, near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Wearing a pink knee-length skirt, a denim jacket, low heels and a cross pendant, she looked like someone on the way to church, rather than someone who had spent the last four years homeless, on and off the street, and the better part of the last two years working as a prostitute.
Falling into the child welfare system when she was 16, Victoria was staying at a group shelter on Staten Island when she met a man on the street. He was nice to her, he offered her a place to stay and they started dating, she said.
“I was so innocent,” Victoria said, “I fell right into the trap.” For the next year and a half, this was her pimp.
“Out of 10 girls, I would say nine girls do it or have done it. That’s how many girls. Even here,” she said, referring to Covenant House.
“They feel like it’s the only option they have.”
Adriana, 23, grew up in the South Bronx and started working as a prostitute when she was 14, after running away from home. Her stepfather had been raping her since she was 11, she said, and he would leave money next to the bed every time so that she would keep it a secret.
When she first ran away, she would sleep at the “trap house,” a neighborhood spot where people would sell drugs and hang out. That was when the man who would become her pimp started talking to her about working for him, Adriana said in an interview.
“He gave me a place to sleep, he gave me food,” she said. “At that point, that’s all that mattered.”
Adriana stayed with her pimp, on and off, for the next six years.
For those unfamiliar with the dynamics of prostitution, it might be puzzling that these women do not leave their violent pimps. In a recent case that Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, brought against a father and son running a sex trafficking ring, women who worked for the pimps testified on their behalf.
“It’s the Stockholm syndrome,” said Linda Poust Lopez, now a judge in Bronx Criminal Court, who as a longtime Legal Aid lawyer often defended “commercially sexually exploited” girls and young women.
“This is the only ‘love’ they’ve ever known. Quote-unquote love.”
Ann, Adriana and Victoria are no longer with their pimps, although their time spent with them is marked by pregnancies and, for two of the women, arrests.
Adriana now works at GEMS as a mentor to those who have been commercially sexually exploited. On a recent afternoon at the organization’s headquarters — the location and clients’ full names cannot be used, because of the staff’s obligation to protect clients from retaliation by pimps — Adriana spoke of her concern about the public perception of teenage prostitutes.
“I think people need to realize that it’s not a choice that we make. It’s life situations that cause us to do the things we need to do to survive,” she said.
“I feel like people don’t stop to realize that these are girls. No one wakes up and says, ‘I want to be a prostitute today.’ ”
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