Recognizing the countless hours spent by police and corrections officers arresting, booking, jailing, and releasing the same drug-dependent prostitutes over and over again, the Metro-Dade Police Department recently initiated a program they hoped would pluck at least some out of the routine. Now prostitutes are occasionally offered crack during stings. If they accept, they are arrested and charged with cocaine possession -- a felony -- making them liable for much more time in jail than they'd get for the usual misdemeanors. The next step is Dade's special drug court, where defendants are given a chance to enter drug-treatment programs. Aside from protests from the Dade Public Defender's Office that the policy is unconstitutional, even its advocates acknowledge that it probably won't salvage many lives. Crack-addicted prostitutes are among the most incorrigible of all street people, and rehabilitating every one arrested under the new policy would require time and resources the county doesn't have.

"Their motives are good, but every girl they offer a rock to isn't going to leave [the street]," says Rhaynetta Cheatham, a former prostitute who now does AIDS-prevention outreach work for the Liberty City Health Services Center and heads an AIDS ministry at Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church. "Dade closed its women's drug-rehab facility two years ago, and there are only four county-run treatment programs. There are less than a hundred county-funded beds for women. If you go to intake, you have to wait for a bed."

But the real barrier to change, Cheatham explains, is the psychic one all prostitutes must maintain to survive on the street: "You don't let your guard down. Prostitutes don't feel anything. There are three parts of a prostitute's body that work: the head, the hands, and the feet. Those are active at all times. A nice girl will get blown out of the water. It's very scary out there. But at the same time, you get comfortable. It's a place where no one demands anything, and if society doesn't have faith in me, why should I try, because they won't give me a break, anyway."

At age 38, Cheatham has full-blown AIDS and an overwhelming motivation to fight the virus with unceasing efforts to educate, salvage, and support its most unfortunate victims. Charismatic, she is possessed of a dramatic presence that is enhanced by her golden eyes, flared nostrils, and talent for public speaking. She grew up in a religious family and was a top student at her high school in Plant City (near Tampa), a member of the National Honor Society and Latin Club president. But she was sexually molested for years by her mother's white boss, and all the strict middle-class values she learned were of no help to her in struggling to cope with the trauma. At age sixteen she was a steady drug user, and about ten years ago she became a part-time prostitute in order to to pay for cocaine. From there Cheatham slid all the way into the street life, relinquishing her five children one by one to the care of her family or to HRS.

Fresh out of drug treatment in 1992, doing her utmost to establish a new life, Cheatham recalls working at McDonald's for minimum wage and watching prostitutes earning $100 an hour right outside the window. "I was terrified to come out of the house; it was too tempting," she remembers.

Today she takes her bike out a few times a week just to greet the working girls, hand them some condoms, or talk if they want to. In this context, Cheatham says, she's spoken to Roxanne, but never about anything of substance. When she meets prostitutes on the street, she doesn't condemn them. All she can do is inform them about where to get help should they decide to seek it. She refuses to look at prostitutes either as a class of offenders or as a class of victims. She knows they're people like her who are in deep trouble and who, if they decide to get out, will need strong support. "I understand the people in this neighborhood wanting prostitutes off the street," Cheatham says. "But there is a human being under there. Some reason pushed them out there. A lot were not nurtured or supported; there was verbal or sexual abuse. Those values I learned in that crinoline slip and white patent-leather shoes don't apply. We've all got some belief or value that just didn't work."

At the Checkers drive-in on Biscayne and 17th Street, Roxanne has struck up a conversation with a young man wearing a backpack and hiking shorts. It turns out he's from Pennsylvania. Amazingly, she knew some of his relatives when she lived there. He has wandered down to Miami after a devastating breakup with his wife, and he's homeless. They decide they can help each other, but first Roxanne wants to visit her mom to see if she has any money to give her, and she wants to stop by a women's shelter to find out whether they'll allow her to sleep there during the day and go out at night. She and the man agree to meet back at Checkers later.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets