Savior of Last Resort

A hardened businesswoman takes to the streets to help prostitutes save themselves

And then she belly laughs.

Klinker grew up on a ranch in the Rocky Mountains near Boulder. Her parents had neither religion nor booze in the house. She rode broncs and bulls as well as any boy, and skied better than most of the guys. After college she taught skiing in Switzerland and New Zealand. Life became one big party, and she was good at that, too. A job in sales and marketing for ski resorts and hotels was a natural fit. In 1991 she moved to Key West as a corporate sales agent for the Boston-based Sonesta Hotel chain. Five years later she took a job in Miami as sales director for the Alexander. But alcoholism was swamping her. By 1997 she had drunk herself into bankruptcy.

In 1998 she made it through a rehab program at South Miami Hospital. Then she joined a support group and things started to improve. "I'd be going to my meetings and I'd see these women sitting on bus benches with a quart of malt liquor waiting for a john to come by," she relates. "And I had this feeling that I was lucky to have the resources and insurance to get on with my life.... I suspected they felt like they were in a dark hole with a sewer grate on top of their heads, trapped in a cycle of degradation."

Heather Klinker hopes to make some changes in the lives of the desperate
Steve Satterwhite
Heather Klinker hopes to make some changes in the lives of the desperate

That feeling grew so strong that on September 15, she plunked down $5000, her retirement savings plus a loan from a girlfriend, to rent and renovate a scruffy little storefront at 3509 NE Second Ave. "It's all I had. I'm down to my brassiere," she laughs.

A group Klinker calls her "sorority sisters from rehab" helped fix up the place. Several continue working there. Pam, a skilled carpenter, does a lot of the handiwork. Liz Dunn, a comedian and writer, also pitches in sometimes. Others donated money (she took in $551 in October), clothes, and household items. A month ago she applied for a $69,000 federal grant under the name of her nonprofit, Grubstake Resources for Recovery. She proposes to pay herself a salary of $29,000 per year if her application is successful.

It's a little past 9:00 p.m. when Klinker leaves Krissy on Biscayne and heads back to her shop. She takes some shoes to a homeless couple out back, then spies Sylvia trolling a weed-choked stretch of NE Second Avenue by the railroad tracks. For two weeks Klinker has been talking to Sylvia, a transvestite hooker who claims the bus bench in front of Good & Funky. Tonight Sylvia is wearing a black miniskirt. His long, curly brown locks are pulled back. "I've been out on the streets since 1985," he says. "Do you know how many drug programs I been in? The program doesn't change you. You have to want to change yourself." And Sylvia is not open to change right now. He's content with the bus bench, the johns, and whatever cocaine and beer he can cop.

Klinker doesn't push Sylvia. Klinker may be a do-gooder, but she's no zealot. She doesn't preach religion or temperance. She just makes herself available. As Sylvia walks away, Klinker checks to make sure the store's doors are locked, then hops in her car and heads to her home on South Beach.

The next morning at Good & Funky, Klinker folds clothes, stacks books, and brews coffee. While her hands move, her mind is fixed on the phone. By midday Krissy has not called. Klinker recalls her own booze-filled nights. She doesn't have much hope. "Krissy was probably high when she said all that. But I'm not going to give up. I'll go out again tonight if I don't hear from her."

At 1:00 p.m. Klinker takes a lunch break to run an errand. Before leaving she stuffs a cardboard sign in a gate that guards the door: "Gone to a lunch mtg. Be back in 1 hour." When she returns there's a note scrawled in pretty, loopy female writing. "Heather, it's Krissy from last night. I'll come back later." Klinker kicks herself for not being there. Any short delay, any minute obstacle, may be the cement wall that prevents her from crawling out of the gutter.

At 2:00 p.m. Krissy comes knocking. Whatever borrowed energy she had the night before is gone. She's tired and drooping. Her face is pulled tight, all cheekbones and bulging eyes. But she wants to enter rehab. She just needs some help to get there. She's late, she explains, because she was hurting so bad this morning that she needed to get high. "That's all right," Klinker says. "I needed about 60 beers for my first trip in." And then she laughs. Klinker knows Krissy is scared. If the girl goes through withdrawal, her insides are going to feel like they are being yanked out. Klinker estimates Krissy will be jonesing again in one hour. Best to get moving soon.

"Take whatever you need," Klinker offers, pointing around the store. Krissy grabs those jeans she heard about, along with a book titled Conquest, by Jude Deveraux. "I like the old-time stuff about kings and queens," she explains. And because the hospital might be cold, Klinker instructs Krissy to take a fuzzy black sweater. Krissy puts the clothes in a bag and requests one more favor. "Maybe you can call my dad for me?" Klinker says that won't be a problem.

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