Street-Level Economics: More Teens Selling Their Bodies

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(Sacramento, CA)
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Kiki is 18 years old and her body shows the signs of a hard life as a prostitute. Here’s how she says it all started. 

“I was 12 years old and I had just gotten into a group home because my mom’s husband raped me and I didn’t want to be in a group home so I started getting money and found my way to a pimp at 12 years old, when I was 16 years old I went out onto the streets and started prostituting and made myself homeless, which was stupid.’” 
Rail thin with scars on her arms and legs Kiki says they’re reminders of beatings, knife wounds and getting shot. She’s avoided several near death experiences, like one time a few years ago with another young prostitute.

Kiki: “We were in a trick’s car, we do double dates, like me and her, I was 13 and she was like 11, and the trick shot her and pushed her and she did not make it, he blew her head off, so I just jumped out of the car because I’m not going to be the next one.” 
Stewart: “The homicide rate for kids involved in prostitution is forty times greater.” 
That’s Dr. Deborah Stewart. She treats teen prostitutes at the UC Davis CAARE Center in Sacramento. She says if they don’t die from violence, they face long-term health problems. According to Stewart, the stress of a slumping economy is pushing more parents over the edge and they’re abusing their kids. So many of them are running away. Stewart says once the teens hit the streets they’ll likely be a victim of a sex crime within days. And, she says, these girls have a high risk of getting diseases that can cause infections and infertility. 

“Studies have shown adolescents, because of their biology, are twice as likely to acquire sexually transmitted diseases, including chlamydia and gonorrhea, than adult, even adult prostitutes.” 
According to the California Department of Public Health, Sacramento has the third highest chlamydia rate in the state. It’s something that Kiki didn’t escape.

“I had chlamydia, gonorrhea, and then it went back to chlamydia, went back to gonorrhea.” 
She also says she got pregnant at 13. And she has mental health issues – like Dr. Stewart says so many teen prostitutes do. Kiki says she has bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia.

“I’m suicidal, I cut myself, I try to cut my vein, I try to cut my neck, I try to hang myself, I overdose if I have to. I don’t think I should live because of my past.” 
It’s a devastating, street-level case of supply and demand. In this recession, demand is up while the supply of resources to help these teens is dwindling. Tight budgets are causing health clinic and law enforcement cuts. That’s something FBI special agent Minerva Shelton is dealing with. She’s part of a Sacramento Police Department and FBI taskforce focusing on teen prostitution. But she says last fall her unit was cut in half.

“We’re now back to only four of us working these cases and that makes it very difficult because we can’t be out there trying to locate as many girls.” 
In 2007 Shelton says they recovered 16 teens, last year it was 36 – mainly on Watt Avenue, Del Paso Boulevard or through Craigslist online postings. Although…she says when they find the teens, there’s nowhere to take them. 
One place where homeless teens can go is the WIND Center. It’s tucked into a corner of Sacramento’s Del Paso Heights neighborhood. Tasha Norris is the center’s program director. 

“We have a 16 bed shelter and then we probably see about 40 kids per day.”
These days, she says, more teens are coming in than in the past. She says to survive almost half end up in the sex industry.

“And, then what do you do? I mean there’s no place to put them, there’s no shelter that is dedicated to young sex industry workers.”
Norris says on top of that, now it’s harder to get health care. She says the clinics where she sends the teens to get free or low-cost mental and sexual health treatment are overwhelmed. Ongoing funding cuts she says mean fewer services.

“These kids need therapeutic intervention, lots of therapy, lots of resources, it’s much different than just being homeless.”  
22-year-old April is a veteran prostitute whose a regular visitor to the WIND Center. She’s been working the streets for a decade. Holding back tears, she says it’s now catching up with her and she wants out. April doesn’t have a job, stable housing or regular treatment for her bipolar disorder.    
“It feels like I don’t have anything anymore, you know, I don’t have any love, no counseling, no anything and it’s like really coming down on me a lot.” 
Tasha Norris says that to prevent situations like April’s these girls need coordinated intervention that includes housing and health care. But, she says, in this economy teen prostitution is far from a priority.