Savior of Last Resort

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

On a still night beneath Biscayne Boulevard's sagging palm trees and dull streetlights near 54th Street, Heather Klinker offers redemption in the form of size-three blue jeans.

About 8:30 p.m. the 40-year-old Colorado native sees two young prostitutes by the side of the road. Krissy, a pale blond 33-year-old, and Lacey, a stick-thin brunette in a rubber dress, are trolling for customers with their eyes, staring down another night of leering faces. Klinker, a former rodeo rider, swings her faded red Saab convertible around and screeches to a halt. In the back seat her dog, Bula, scrambles to stay upright. Dressed in jeans and a denim work shirt, she saunters over to the women like some kind of avenging cowgirl savior.

"Hey," Klinker drawls. "Can I talk to you a minute? Don't worry, I'm not a cop."

The girls eye her warily, but they allow her to approach. That's all the invitation Klinker needs. She describes a shop called Good & Funky that she and some friends opened in late October. All the clothes in the purple-walled place at 3509 NE Second Ave. and 35th Street, as well as coffeepots, furniture, and books, are free to hookers who want to quit drugs and enter a rehab program. Klinker also makes appointments at clinics, gives rides, finds apartments, and does whatever is needed to right a life upended.

The nascent effort is a rare outreach program aimed at getting drug-addicted hookers off the streets. During her nocturnal rounds, Klinker has started gentle negotiations with at least ten women who have expressed interest in seeking help. Miami Police Ofcr. Gregory Bavonese, who has been monitoring prostitutes on Biscayne Boulevard for fifteen years, hasn't heard of Klinker's program. But it sounds like a good idea, he says. "In terms of going out there and contacting [hookers], I don't know of any agencies that do that," Bavonese remarks. "Hey, if this woman's starting something, and it works, it may be a place I could send people to."

Klinker is trying to make it work tonight. She softly pitches both Krissy and Lacey, hoping some of her words will sink in. Lacey is too tweaked to pay attention. She twists and turns so much she looks as though she's trying to squirm out of her dress. She's been up six days doing drugs, she explains, proudly adding the non sequitur, "I'm a juvenile. I'm seventeen." Then she waves to a passing car and wanders off.

But Krissy stays, her bloodshot eyes wide at the prospect of getting some clean clothes and maybe placing a phone call to her father.

"You got jeans there, really? And I can have them? Size three or four?" she sputters. "Wow, this is what I need. I just need some help, y'know? Do you have coffee? I know if I called my daddy everything would be okay." She's been on the streets about a month, ever since life just kind of snowballed on her, she explains. It's the heroin. She's down to three bags a day, she says, enough to prevent nausea. Her habit costs $30 per day. It might not sound like a lot of money, but "it is if you don't have it," Krissy laments. "That's why I started doing this."

She lost her clothes a couple of weeks ago, when she didn't pay on time for a room at a flophouse, she says. Then she put herself up for sale on the boulevard. She used to sell car parts. "I was good at it," she mumbles.

"Come by," Heather says calmly, while handing Krissy one business card and stuffing another into the bedraggled girl's shirt pocket. "We can help you."

"Are you kidding? I'm gonna be there in the morning," Krissy says excitedly.

Back in the Saab, Klinker muses: "I hope we can help her. It could be a different story in the morning. She's gonna need that first bag of dope and then we'll see if she'll call."

Klinker, a big-boned woman with a ruddy face and short hair, is new at this. Until September she was a sales director for the Alexander Luxury Hotel on the Beach, earning a $50,000 annual salary. That job capped twenty years of work in the resort industry. Two decades of taking clients out for dinner and drinks may be a shaky foundation for a career on the streets, she admits. Hanging out with hopeless women night after night can knock the fight out of the sturdiest folks.

But Klinker figures she knows something about bouncing back. For ten years she was a hard-core alcoholic. Her habit was so bad she'd wake up in the middle of the night needing a beer just to go back to sleep. She'd guzzle a six-pack on her way home from work. "That's one beer every four miles," she points out. She consumed 30 drinks a day, morning to night. She was what's called a maintenance drinker. "I tell ya, if I wasn't off the sauce, I'd be one of them," she says, referring to the prostitutes she has met. "Except I'd be the old, fat, lesbian hooker out there not making any money."

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."

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.

They head to the Saab, which Klinker refers to as her "red sled." Later, after holding Krissy's hand at Jackson Memorial Hospital's intake unit, and receiving a hug that nearly snaps her neck, Klinker returns to her shop. It's a big day. Her first success. It's a good start, but no more. Klinker eyes the bills the mailman delivered, then ponders her former life in sales. "I don't have a cent," she exclaims. "But damn I feel good."

tristram_korten@miaminewtimes.com

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