NC: Ex-prostitute leads others out

Published: Sat, Jun. 27, 2009 02:00AM

RALEIGH – Last week, Sheila Sanders celebrated five years of redemption — five years since she smoked a crack rock, five years since she turned a trick.

She shook off 13 years as a prostitute in Southeast Raleigh, lost years when she gave up four children to a neighbor, endured five rapes and scavenged meals from the trash — all to fill her pipe.

Five years ago, all she cared about was finding good-quality crack that hadn’t been cut with embalming fluid. Now she leads a support group at The Women’s Center downtown, counseling the very addicts who used to trick alongside her.

“For just one hour and a half,” she said, “I am somebody. I’m Sheila Sanders. These women know me from the streets, and they say, ‘I knew Sheila when, and if she can do it, I can do it.’ ”

Sanders, 50, belongs to a small club of recovered prostitutes. Some studies show that 1 in 20 women quit prostitution, though as many as 95 percent want out.

At the Women’s Center, Sanders knows women who have relapsed just to buy a pack of cigarettes. Women come in dirty, blistered, fighting bronchitis, often on the advice of a fellow prostitute.

“It’s not a simple little world you just quit,” said Jeri Jefferys, who directs the center’s SHAPE program. “Life on the street is traumatic. Being homeless is traumatic. All of these women have some post-traumatic stress.”

In her years of working corners, Sanders favored East Davie and Montague streets — narrow and lightly traveled. It was easy, she said, to duck behind a church, into a park on Martin or Davie streets or inside one of a dozen abandoned houses.

Her record shows dozens of arrests throughout her decade on the street, but only for drug possession, drinking in public or other misdemeanors. Never for prostitution.

Sanders took to the streets with fear at first. But before long, she was offering pointers to other women. Hide behind a building, but stay out in the open to avoid getting trapped. Don’t stay longer than a set number of minutes. Don’t charge $10 when you can charge $20. Don’t charge $20 when you can charge $30. She stuck to the same streets and squatted with crack-addicted boyfriends when she could.

But life as a Raleigh prostitute was perilous even for the experienced. Men would pull guns on her, force her into cars, drop her off in different counties. When that happened, she had to trade sex for a ride back to her corner.

You could never trust anyone, Sanders said. Sex, money and drugs were the only currency. You made deals. Tell another prostitute about a dealer with good crack and you might score extra drugs for yourself. But you expected to be cheated. Leave your corner to travel to a good crack dealer’s house, and when you return, another woman will be working in your spot.

“It’s a whole economy,” Jefferys said.

It took a coma and several weeks in the hospital to pull Sanders off the street. She was upset that her boyfriend was seeing another prostitute, and she smoked crack all night until she couldn’t walk.

When she woke up in WakeMed Raleigh, she told the doctor, “Please don’t send me back out there.”

Jefferys counsels 18 to 20 women at a time through the SHAPE program, which stands for safety, health and personal empowerment. Entry-level women start with the red group, where the main point is safety. Stop getting in cars with strangers. Get to a doctor and get some medication. Next comes the yellow group for women on their way to stability, maybe staying clean for a month and finding a steady place to stay.

Then comes blue group, for women who have made it through a year without drug abuse — a club that gets maybe three members a year.

SHAPE stays afloat on about $35,000 a year cobbled together from county, state and federal funds, and cutbacks are a constant problem. But Sanders comes every Monday and Wednesday for 90-minute sessions as a peer group leader. She gets by on nine medications. She spent much of her post-addiction time in a homeless shelter, and now she stays with her son. Her daughters are still upset with her, she said. She is comfortable being identified, but not photographed.

Sanders knows that many of the women come to SHAPE just for free food and clothing. She used to be one of them. She isn’t healthy enough to work. With her record, she doubts anyone would hire her. Ex-prostitutes don’t transition well to a 9-to-5 world.

But with a wooden cross around her neck, Sanders explains that God took the taste of crack out of her mouth. And she lives to tell everyone about a sweeter life. or 919-829-4818

Original on The News and Observer



  1. I really wish we did not ALWAYS hear of “(Prostitution and Drugs). It makes people think ALL prostituties are drug addicts! There are plenty that are NOT. Some never even smoked pot. You cannot compare a street hooker to the upscale ones. Just like you cannot compare a guy who picks hookers up on the street to a guy that uses a SERVICE. Some (Call Girls) make thousands of dollars per hr in hotel sites, do not drink or use drugs.
    Of course MS. Sanders can now speak of a “Sweeter Life”, ANYTHING would be better than what SHE had. Why was she not able to work for a SERVICE? Probably the Drugs. That was of her choice, but do not pool all working girls into the same batch. Some do not want it any different because it is so good the way they have it now.

  2. I read this story and I am wanting to find out if this is The Sheila Sanders that I grew up with. we use to be very close friends, Did she have a sister named Cheryl and a brother named Ronnie? could somebody please find this information out. I am a the wife of a Pastor now and I much would love to speak with her.
    thank you

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