Like most prostitutes, Jill saw no way out.
Drug-addicted and living on the streets of Kansas City, she needed money. But with no education or job skills, she saw little choice in how to earn it.
“It was a horrible revolving door,” she said.
If a local nonprofit has its way, the exit will soon get easier. In the next two months, Veronica’s Voice, a group dedicated to ending commercial sexual exploitation, plans to have a home where women can live rent-free for two years. They also will receive education, job training, drug treatment and therapy.
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While the home, called Magdalene KC, will be rent-free, it won’t be a free ride.
“It’s not like they’re just going to lie in bed and eat bonbons and watch soap operas,” said Kristy Childs, founder and director of Veronica’s Voice.
“They’re going to work on their trauma issues and unpack a lot of baggage they’ve been running from. While they’re doing that they’re going to get vocational training and job skills. They couldn’t do all those things and work to pay the bills.”
But the women will work in the home, creating handmade products to be sold in stores and online to support the cause.
Childs founded the group in 2000 after spending many years on the street herself. She named it in honor of a friend, Veronica Neverdusky, murdered in 1993. Her body was dumped in Penn Valley Park. The group has since served more than 500 woman every year.
She is naming the new home after Mary Magdalene, who in the Bible was the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection and, some say, was a prostitute. “There’s this debate. Was she or wasn’t she?” Childs said. “But she’s been labeled one for 2,000 years.
“I felt like to honor her — and all these women down through history who have been prostituted and very misunderstood — we should name (the home) Magdalene.”
It’s a great idea, said Kari Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Kansas City Police Department.
“We definitely hope that this new initiative is successful as it will positively affect these women, their families and this community,” she said. “We support anything that can help (them) have a new start in life.”
For women such as Jill, now an area manager for a large corporation in Joplin, getting that start was nearly impossible. Every time she was arrested for prostitution, she’d be fined $500. If she didn’t pay the fine, she’d go to jail.
The only way to pay it? Continue turning tricks.
“I knew the only service I could provide was sexually,” said Jill, now in her 50s, who is identified by only her first name to protect her new reputation. “No one would hire me, and no one would let me rent from them because I was a horrible person. That’s exactly how I felt.”
Even after finding Veronica’s Voice, it took many difficult years to finally get off the streets.
“Had there been a house at that time I would have been out a lot faster, and there would have been a lot more success stories,” she said. “Because there is only so much room in the shelters. You are dealing with people who have nothing.
“Most of us were runaways because of abuse within the home or family. It brings tears to my eyes thinking that this is right around the corner, because this is life and death to so many people.”
Childs will choose the first women to live in the house, which she expects to have ready by fall. The women must sign a contract, agreeing not to engage in prostitution and promising to go to drug treatment and therapy.
“I am expecting some screwups,” Childs said. “But it will be hard for me to put them out of the house, as long as they are putting forth the effort.”
The exception: physical aggression. That will earn an immediate expulsion.
Veronica’s Voice previously ran a Safe Center in Hyde Park. While it provided temporary shelter, services and support, Childs said, the women had to return to the streets.
“I would see the same women coming in a week or a month later, beaten up again,” Childs said.
The group closed that center a year ago to focus on opening a Magdalene house.
Two previous attempts have been unsuccessful. A few years ago the group planned to open a larger Magdalene Manor in Hyde Park, where as many as 16 survivors of prostitution and addiction could live, but objection from neighbors made it impossible.
“Every time we’d do something they’d come back to the codes people, and we’d have to do this now,” she said. “It was continually something.”
The group eventually sold the home.
Last year, the KC Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation, which included Veronica’s Voice, planned to buy the former St. Paul’s School of Theology site. But after neighbors complained, Childs said, the owners sold to another buyer.
Now the plan is to acquire a smaller home, perhaps in Wyandotte County, for only five residents. That might not generate such controversy, Childs said.
The group is seeking a donated home but has enough money to buy one if necessary.
“There’s a lot to be done,” said Bernie Darter, a volunteer and project manager of Magdalene KC. “There’s looking for the home, there’s getting the crews together to upgrade and rehab the home and make it ready, and there’s making sure that we have our speaker’s bureau, which is a group of folks who will be trained to go out and tell everyone what’s happening here and how they can get involved.”
Childs got the idea for a house after attending a conference in Nashville, Tenn. She learned about Nashville’s Magdalene House, opened in 1997 by author and Episcopal priest Becca Stevens. The program has an 80 percent success rate in helping survivors of prostitution start new lives, and Stevens has helped 20 groups in other cities establish similar homes.
“When I saw what they had done I lost my breath and started to cry,” said Childs. “If we can get the same support and care from our community, we can do similar things right here in Kansas City.”
It’s a model of efficiency and success.
“We manufacture and distribute bath and body care products,” Stevens said. “And we have sewing and paper studios where the women help make notebooks, ornaments, tote bags and gift cards.
“We have 400 stores around the country that sell our products, including Whole Foods, and many mom-and-pop stores. We generated more than $1 million dollars in sales last year, and more than $500,000 was paid directly to the survivors in wages.”
The products also can be purchased on the group’s website, thistlefarms.org.
“When we first started I thought, ‘Isn’t it amazing it takes a whole community to help five women who went into the first house?’” Stevens said. “And now looking back almost 20 years I think, ‘Isn’t it amazing that those five women have helped change a whole community?’ They have reminded us that women do recover and that we don’t have to leave anybody behind.
“Yes, the story of human trafficking and women on the street is a sad and horrible story,” said Stevens. “But the story of Thistle Farms and Veronica’s Voice? Those are stories of hope.”