From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Creating Hope from Lives of Desperation

Date 20 Dec 1997 16:47:46

    Creating Hope from Lives of Desperation 
    by Stephanie Salter 
    San Francisco Examiner 
    Used with permission 
SAN FRANCISCO--Just days after Sister Rosina Conrotto discovered that one 
of her 200-year-old order's original missions was to take care of 
prostitutes, the Rev. Glenda Hope called to ask for help on a new project: 
establishing a safe house in San Francisco for women who want to get out of 
    "It was one of those God moments," said Conrotto. 
    The congregation president of the Catholic Sisters of the Presentation, 
Conrotto chose to seize the moment and join Hope, a Presbyterian minister 
and the executive director of San Francisco Network Ministries. 
    That was 10 months ago.  In a ceremony and press conference Nov. 20 at 
the Presentation convent, Conrotto and Hope formally announced the January 
1998 opening date for their prostitutes' safe house.  Tucked away in a 
mixed-use neighborhood south of Market Street, the three-story building 
will be home for 12 women who may stay as long as two years. 
    The house is the first of its kind in San Francisco and only the fourth 
that Conrotto and Hope have been able to find in existence in the United 
States.  The others are in Chicago, Los Angeles and Waikiki. 
    Right now, the house has no name.  The purpose of it is not to honor 
any Catholic saints or Presbyterian clergy or, for that matter, to recruit 
followers to Christianity. 
    "This will absolutely not be a place to proselytize," said Hope, who 
was ordained in 1970.  "There will be no religious requirements, either 
overt or covert, no tests.  If a woman wants spiritual counsel, she can get 
it.  But the function of the safe house is to provide a long-term, 
intensely supportive environment for women who want to escape 
    In on the founding of PROMISE, a prostitutes' advocacy and outreach 
organization in The City, Hope probably knows as much about prostitution as 
any non-sex worker can.  In her 25 years at the Tenderloin-based Network 
Ministries, she has listened to, counseled and consoled numerous hookers 
and their families.  Over the last few years, she said, she as presided at 
too many of their funerals. 
    14-year-old prostitutes 
    "This is not the glamorous profession portrayed in movies like `Pretty 
Woman,'" said Hope.  "For street prostitutes especially, it is dangerous, 
degrading and unhealthy.  One of the young women I conducted a memorial 
service for was blown away by her trick in a hotel room because he didn't 
like her services.  He just shot her dead." 
    The organization's officials say they know of six San Francisco 
prostitutes who were murdered in the last two years, three of whom were 
PROMISE clients. 
    About 90 percent of street prostitutes were abused as children, said 
Hope and Conrotto, 65-75 percent of them are victims of long-term incest, 
and fewer than half have finished high school.  More than 85 percent have 
never worked any other job but prostitution, and 90 percent are addicted to 
drugs or alcohol. 
    We of the comfy middle class might view such a desperate, miserable 
existence as easy to leave.  The opposite is true. 
    "Leaving prostitution was the toughest thing I've done in my life," 
said Naomi Akers, a counselor at PROMISE, an acronym for Prevention, 
Referral, Outreach, Mentoring and Intervention to End Sexual Exploitation. 
    "It was so ingrained in me," she said.  "I believed there wasn't 
anything better.  When you have no goals at all, it's hard to change." 
    A drug user at 11 and turning tricks since she was 14 -- the average 
age street prostitutes begin work -- Akers spent her late teens in a legal 
brothel in Nevada.  By the time she chose a drug rehab program over prison, 
she'd hit bottom, working the streets in Los Angeles.  She was 23. 
    Her time in Walden House, a substance abuse treatment program in San 
Francisco, taught Akers a great deal about the rough but rewarding road out 
of addiction and self-destructive behavior.  Two years on the staff of La 
Casa de las Madres, a battered women's shelter, expanded her knowledge and 
    Thus, Akers was a natural to serve on the safe house project's 
12-person advisory board.  Other board members include Candace Heisler from 
the San Francisco district attorney's office, Ida Strickland from the San 
Francisco Sheriff's Department and Gwen Johnson from Jelani House, a 
live-in facility for recovering drug-addicted mothers and their children. 
    Mary Magdalene House 
    Through months of outreach surveys, the board learned from prostitutes 
what services the safe house should offer.  They range from a staff person 
with medical training to people who can teach the most rudimentary life 
skills, such as cooking and keeping an appointments calendar. 
    A visit to the 17-year-old Mary Magdalene Project in Los Angeles 
provided Hope and Conrotto a richly detailed model. 
    Begun in 1978 by a West Hollywood Presbyterian minister and a small 
group of Presbyterian church women, Mary Magdalene houses six women at a 
time and offers a second-stage 12-unit facility for former prostitutes and 
their children. 
    "When I came on board in 1980, I was fresh out of seminary and had a 
lot of ideas about how to help," said Mary Magdalene's director, 
Presbyterian minister the Rev. Ann Hayman.  "We'd keep people for about six 
months and basically dye their hair back to its normal color, lengthen 
their skirts and send them back home.  We had no idea how deep the needs 
    "Like, I remember getting a phone call from one of our former 
residents.  She said her father was in town and asked if it was all right 
to have sex with him.  It didn't take long for us to realize that what we 
were offering wasn't enough, that things like mandatory therapy and job 
training had to be part of the program -- not to mention a much longer time 
to stay here." 
    Not just about sex 
    "This is not a population that is afforded a lot of love or 
understanding," said Glenda Hope.  "These women bear a lot of our society's 
sexual anxieties, fears and fantasies.  Prostitution is not just about sex. 
It is a global, political system that places women at the service of the 
dominant culture.  And it is a multibillion-dollar international business 
in which organized crime plays a huge role." 
    In San Francisco alone, she said, "we spend $7 million annually just to 
recycle prostitutes through the criminal justice system.  That's a lot of 
money.  What good does it do?" 
    The safe house will spend considerably less to do considerably more. 
The annual budget is under $200,000.  Conrotto and Hope say that contracts, 
grants and fund-raising have put them "in solid financial shape for five 
years," but they will not rest easily until they have amassed an endowment 
of about $2 million that can be invested to ensure the project's future. 
    Said Hope: "The safe house has taken so many people to make happen. 
Please don't play this up as some great big sacrifice by us.  This is a 
gift -- all these resources coming together." 
    Conrotto agreed: "This can't look like `Glenda and Rosina's Dream' that 
    Far from it.  In fact, the dream appears to be much older. 
    "Just before Glenda called me, I'd found some of the writings of our 
foundress, Nano Nagle," said Conrotto.  "The Presentation nuns are mostly 
thought of as a teaching order.  But in 1784, Nagle wrote that one of the 
order's missions was to take care of the prostitutes in her city of Cork, 
Ireland.  If Nano Nagle were here today, this safe house is exactly what 
she'd be doing.  It's exactly what we're supposed to be doing." 
For more information about this project or how to help, call San Francisco 
Network Ministries at (415) 928-6209. 

For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
  phone 502-569-5504             fax 502-569-8073  
  E-mail   Web page: 
  mailed from World Faith News <>  


Browse month . . . Browse month (sort by Source) . . . Advanced Search & Browse . . . WFN Home