The Fight of Their Lives

For 10 years, Off the Streets has helped women involved in prostitution and sex trafficking transition to a normal life. Heroin has turned the program’s efforts into a life or death struggle. Here’s what it’s like on the battlefield.

Hidden behind a set of double doors on the first floor of the Anna Louise Inn, there’s a meeting room. It doesn’t seem like anything special: Ordinary white walls, white folding tables arranged in a square, stackable vinyl-padded chairs. A whiteboard, stained with a faded smiley face, hugging one corner.

Look closer and you’ll see a bookshelf full of magazines, romance novels, and Alcoholics Anonymous literature. One wall decorated with a curving line of colored-paper feet, another with a string of coffee filter doves draped across a mural of a tree. You’ll see affirmations, too, handwritten on sticky notes and tacked neatly between two windows: I am capable. I am brave. I am exactly where I should be.

No matter what you see when this room is empty, though, you’ll see something entirely different when it’s full. And each day, like clockwork, it fills, between the hours of 9 and 4, with women. Women of all ages, shapes, sizes, and colors, filtering in from the common space just outside and the bedrooms down the hall. Women clad in everything from slippers and yoga pants to basketball shorts, work uniforms, and maxi dresses. Sometimes they’re doing yoga or dance; sometimes résumé building or group therapy. This Monday at 9 a.m., they’re doing what they do every morning: daily check-in.

Off the Streets client Megan, 26
Off the Streets client Megan, 26

Photograph by Michael Wilson

“Good morning,” Nickeya says, scanning the faces for a response. Today it’s her turn to take roll call. She holds the worn white binder whose pages are an evolving record of days sober and of feelings, rated on a 1-to-10 scale, for each of the 20-some women present, all survivors of prostitution or human trafficking. The women of Off the Streets.

“Good morning,” Amy says back. She reports that she’s an 8 out of 10, gives her number of days sober. Smiles as they all clap. “And I’m feeling…”

She pauses, searches for the words. Settles on the descriptors that so many others use, but that all of them really do seem to mean: “Today, I’m blessed and happy.”

Nickeya writes everything in the binder, then repeats the process until she’s read through all the names. Days sober range from 17 to upwards of 300, and descriptors sometimes differ: Tired. Humble. Still in love with God. Afterwards they read a prayer together, head to the kitchen for a bowl of cereal or the back patio for a cigarette. At 10 they return for another activity.

Some will continue this routine for just a few months; others, well over a year. Either way, when they are in this room, they’ll bear witness to incredible things: Revelations. Laughter. Tears. Arguments. Pain and frustration few others can know.

And miracles, says program cofounder Mary Carol Melton. Lots and lots of miracles.

Nickeya has warm brown eyes, a clear peach-colored complexion, a tiny diamond stud in her right nostril, and a genuine smile. At group meetings she mostly wears her hair—brown, with a hint of pinkish-purple—up in a knot. She’s usually dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, often in some shade of pink (her favorite color). She toggles easily between street slang and proper English and she’s prone to calling people “Sweetie,” even by text and even if they’re older (she’s 27).

On the day she’s running check-in, she’s 51 days sober and she’s thrilled because she’s just gotten her phone back two weeks early, “for good behavior.” A decade ago, her path to Off the Streets (OTS) might have seemed unusual; today, it’s unfortunately common. She grew up about 40 miles southeast of Cincinnati in Felicity, Ohio, where she lived with both natural parents and two older siblings. Her mom was a Certified Nursing Assistant; growing up, Nickeya played sports and dreamed of being a nurse, too (“I used to wear her scrubs to bed,” she says). On the outside, her family life seemed average. Behind closed doors, her parents were both drug addicts.

Nickeya’s parents were what she calls “functioning” addicts—people who managed to hold everything together and mostly hide their addiction problems—for the first several years of her life. But then her father died of an overdose in 2004, she says, when she was 16. Her mother sought comfort in drugs and “became a person I didn’t know,” says Nickeya. And that same year, Nickeya got pregnant “the first time I ever had sex.” She kept the baby and stayed at home; by junior year she’d dropped out of high school and was working as a manager at McDonald’s to help pay the bills.

She had also been taking prescription painkillers for a medical condition called bilateral congenital hip dysplasia. It wasn’t long before a new boyfriend convinced her to sell some of the painkillers to earn extra money. He also taught her how to get high by snorting the pills she didn’t sell. Nickeya got her GED and studied some medical assisting, but by the time she was 21, she’d also given birth to two more children and was selling everything from pills to heroin and cocaine. When her mother was diagnosed with brain cancer and quickly died, Nickeya fell apart. “After that,” she says, “I just kinda didn’t care.”

The years following became a blur of arrests, convictions (felony and misdemeanor), jail visits, violated probations, and increased drug use, including heroin. Her kids went to live with various relatives and she, like most of her OTS peers, lived on the streets and sold sexual favors (known also as tricking) to support her habit, working for “dope boys” who both supplied her and acted as pimps. “You give every dollar you make to them,” says Nickeya. “You don’t eat. You don’t have nowhere to live—nothing. They just supply you.”

Life on the streets was hard. “I had been raped a number of times,” she says. “I thought I deserved it ’cause that’s what they would tell me when they were doing it.” And there were moments that led her more than once to try to get clean. She remembers especially the time she found herself sitting in a jail cell, alone, for three months on a $100 bond. Two of her siblings were users and her babies’ dad “wasn’t there,” she says. “Nobody was. And I started feeling like I’m always taking care of everybody else, but Nickeya never gets any care.”

After a brief three-day stint at Off the Streets and the birth of her fourth child, she relapsed. Finally, in early 2016, walking the streets of Price Hill and thinking about how she hardly knew her kids anymore, Nickeya broke down. “I couldn’t get myself together,” she says. “I couldn’t even stand up. And I was like: ‘God, please help me. Help. Me.’”

Her prayers were answered in the form of yet another misdemeanor arrest—for which the punishment typically amounts to multi-hour processing and almost immediate release. This time, a sergeant who’d seen Nickeya too many times before made her stay, knowing jail time would force her to get clean. She hallucinated for days and suffered the extreme flu-like symptoms—“dope sick”—that accompany opioid withdrawal. But afterwards she says she finally “felt alive.”

“It was a breaking point,” she says. “That’s what I had asked God for. He was giving me what I couldn’t do for myself.”

In court, the judge said he was thinking about sending her to prison. But Nickeya remembered that the facilitators from Off the Streets said she could return anytime. The next morning, one of them took her back to the Anna Louise Inn. “When I walked through these doors,” she says, nodding toward two industrial-style panels that serve as OTS’s entrance, “I had a real sense of peace. I knew a couple girls from the street and they were vibrant and living. I was so happy to see them. Everyone welcomed me right away.”

Off the Streets celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and in that decade, the program has served more than 800 women. It was born of a 2005 National Institute of Corrections–sponsored study of women in the Hamilton County jail system. One of the major findings, says Melton, who recently retired from Cincinnati Union Bethel (CUB), the social service agency that oversees OTS, was that “women with the highest recidivism rate were involved in prostitution.”

A panel of concerned civic and social service leaders, Melton included, explored the topic further; they learned that, although substance abuse and prostitution almost always went hand-in-hand, traditional drug and alcohol treatment programs alone didn’t seem to stop these women from re-offending. “The trauma, shame, and degradation women personally feel” as survivors of prostitution, says Melton, was stopping them from fully recovering. Put simply: In regular treatment programs, they were embarrassed to share their full stories.

To break the cycle they needed a separate program that included mentors of sorts, or peer leaders—women who’d been where they’d been, done what they’d done, and lived to tell about it. Melton and her constituents designed OTS accordingly, modeling it after a similar west coast program. They enlisted CUB as the lead agency and officially opened for business in 2006. Carol Thornton-Gamble (known mostly as “Miss Carol” around the facility), a recovering addict and survivor of prostitution who’d helped develop the program, was the first peer leader, or facilitator. Roughly a dozen women were participants.

OTS is not drug or alcohol treatment; it’s a voluntary residential social service program. Participants, 24 at maximum capacity, must already be drug-free to enter, and must agree to live at the OTS facility, which is housed in a wing of CUB’s Anna Louise Inn on Reading Road, for as long as it takes to rebuild—or, in many cases, build from scratch—their lives. The length of the program varies for each woman. When participants first arrive they immediately receive medical care, case management services, and assessments in both mental and physical health. They also receive practical things, too—everything from towels to clothes to hair dyes, nail polish, and perms. “Sometimes,” says Miss Carol, who’s now the program’s intake/outreach coordinator, “we got to clean up the outside before we can even address the inside.”

The Support System Left to Right: Tracy Smith, Case Facilitator; Carol Thornton-Gamble, Outreach/Intake Coordinator; Sheila Reisch, Case Facilitator; Steve MacConnell, Cincinnati Union Bethel President and CEO; Viann Barnett, Program Manager; and Valerie Wells, Care Coordinator
The Support System Left to Right: Tracy Smith, Case Facilitator; Carol Thornton-Gamble, Outreach/Intake Coordinator; Sheila Reisch, Case Facilitator; Steve MacConnell, Cincinnati Union Bethel President and CEO; Viann Barnett, Program Manager; and Valerie Wells, Care Coordinator

Photograph by Michael Wilson

During the day, participants are guided by facilitators, who are “licensed and degreed” peers, says Smith; after hours, they’re supervised by care coordinators—basically, professional monitors. While enrolled, women must remain sober and follow all house rules, including attending those daily group meetings, many of which are “life skills classes,” says Smith. The vast majority also attend Alcoholics Anonymous and/or Narcotics Anonymous meetings off-site. As they gain stability, participants work, with a facilitator’s help, toward getting—and keeping—a job. The eventual goal is to secure stable independent housing, then graduate and move out.

The women shop for and cook most of their own food, schedule and attend personal meetings and appointments, wash their own clothes and dishes, and share nightly chores, like mopping floors, emptying trash, and cleaning bathrooms. They’re also called out when they break house rules, like violating curfew and having impromptu overnights that they don’t clear ahead of time. “Accountability is something very few of them have ever been held to,” says Steve MacConnell, CUB president and CEO, “and it’s an extremely important piece. It’s done in a way that’s strong but loving.”

There are other residential program options available to female recovering addicts in Cincinnati; most include access to on-site behavioral and/or substance abuse treatment from professionals. First Step Home for women and children and Crossroads Center’s Chaney Allen Women’s Continuum of Care program are two good examples, says Heather Russell, a municipal court judge who works with some of the OTS women through CHANGE Court, a Hamilton County specialty docket for survivors of trafficking and prostitution. But statistics show that OTS’s prostitution-specific, peer-run model (funded today by the city, United Way, and an indigent care levy), has in the short term seen significant success.

In 2015, says Russell, 266 people were arrested in Hamilton County for either soliciting prostitution or loitering to solicit. In comparison, OTS sees between 80 and 100 women each year. James Canfield, an assistant professor in the University of Cincinnati’s school of social work, tracks the women from their first to last day with OTS through surveys, administrative data, and Hamilton County Courts records. According to him, 78.5 percent of women “report no further involvement in prostitution.” That rate is “crazy high,” he notes, for a voluntary program where participants are allowed to live a life outside its walls. The program is also in high demand; OTS has been at maximum occupancy this entire year, says program manager Viann Barnett.

Numbers aside, “community reintegration,” says Development Manager Angelik Smith, is a huge goal: “Following rules, being accountable, showing up on time. Being consistent.” The program also, she says, helps women “create pathways to reunite with children, family members, [and] education.”

Essentially, “Off the Streets offers women a future,” says Melton. Something many of them have never envisioned.

Prostitution and drug use are often cyclical and generational in nature (at least one current OTS participant was pushed into prostitution by her own mother; another sold drugs for her grandmother). Even so, as things have changed over the last 10 years, OTS has evolved right along with them. For starters, says Smith, citing data from an Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force video, more than “90 percent of women who self-identify as being prostituted [are] actually victims of trafficking.” In other words, they have been either forced or coerced into selling sexual favors. This can be a very gray area, especially when drugs and alcohol are involved, but the way Nickeya said the “dope boys” controlled her world provides a window into the progression. Though she may have started out tricking, once she was a full-blown addict she likely ended up being trafficked. Helping women realize that some (and sometimes all) of what happened to them was beyond their control goes a long way toward assuaging the guilt and embarrassment affiliated with their past.

The other enormous change that’s occurred in OTS’s first decade has been a dramatic uptick in heroin use. Because of the intense high it produces, and because it’s both cheaper and more accessible than prescription painkillers (a popular recreational drug, especially in the late ’90s and early 2000s, due largely to over-prescribing by doctors), heroin has become the street drug of choice. The Center for Addiction Treatment (CAT), which is located in the West End and treats approximately 1,700 inpatient addicts each year, reports that the percentage of opiate/heroin abusers admitted to the program has risen from roughly 10 percent in 2001 to 81 percent in 2016. Given that street drugs have always played a significant role in the sex-for-hire industry—cocaine, crack, and meth came before the current opioid explosion—it’s almost impossible to find women who are affiliated with one and not the other.

The intense physical and psychological nature of opioid withdrawal, paired with heroin’s ability to hook users almost instantly and alter the chemical makeup of the brain (prolonged use of heroin, CAT president and CEO Sandra Kuehn reported at a September 6 Cincinnati City Council Human Services Committee hearing, actually stops the brain’s production of dopamine; it can take 14 months of sobriety for the brain to start functioning normally again), have all affected facilitators’ abilities to take women directly “off the streets,” as they once did.

That means Miss Carol’s role as intake/outreach coordinator has changed, too. Once, she was known as a sort of “ninja” for her uncanny ability to track down women in abandoned buildings and wooded areas who didn’t necessarily know they wanted to be found. These days she’s just as likely to be doing prescreens at jails or treatment centers.

Heroin has also affected the program’s demographics. Children in general are being exposed to marijuana and alcohol at much younger ages than ever before (many of the women at OTS started using one or both around age 13); the progression toward more potent drugs, and tricking to earn them, happens much younger, too, especially in families where parents are users (also the case for many of the women coming through OTS). As a result, there are a lot more “younger Caucasian women coming from the suburbs down here to get stuff,” says Miss Carol. Though OTS “was relatively balanced racially from the beginning,” says MacConnell, the CUB president and CEO, “maybe 40 percent white and the rest black, now it’s tipping the scales the other way.” And regardless of race, the women have been steadily getting younger and younger. Consider 19-year-old Brittany, a gentle and lanky dyed-red-head who started doing drugs at age 14 but came to OTS one cold winter morning earlier this year shortly after a man doused her with alcohol and lit her on fire. (The youngest woman OTS has served was 18; the program does not accept minors.)

Off the Streets Client Brittany, 19
Off the Streets Client Brittany, 19

Photograph by Michael Wilson

Despite heroin’s newly commanding presence, OTS has managed to remain successful—a fact Melton and many others attribute to that peer-led component. “Every time [participants] walk through that door,” says Melton, “they see women in a professional setting who have at one time been pretty lost and broken. They know change is possible.” They see it in Sheila Rice, the program’s first graduate, who earned a bachelor’s degree in social work and who is now a facilitator and a CUB employee. They see it in Viann Barnett, too, the OTS program manager who’s also a CAT alum. And they see it in Caroline,* a petite 38-year-old with long, straight blond hair who graduated from OTS in 2014.

The daughter of regular drug users herself, Caroline attended Catholic schools and started “drinking, smoking weed, and doing LSD” at age 13. She eventually spent 16 years using heroin and 13 years living on the streets. “I have two penitentiary numbers, like 40 misdemeanor convictions, [and] I’ve probably been physically arrested over 100 times,” Caroline says. She first found her way to OTS in 2013. After a number of false starts, she finally made it through the program in eight months. Now, she’s over two years sober and volunteering at OTS; she speaks at the program’s graduations, too, serving as an example of what success looks like for women just starting the journey.

Viewed from afar, the program seems simple. But for someone who’s essentially been living in an alternate universe for years, it’s not. “Basically what we’re asking women to do is entirely change their lives,” says Melton. “I’ve heard facilitators say it. I’ve heard the women say it. This is one of the hardest programs ever, because nobody’s telling you what to do. There’s a decision every day, literally every minute and hour: Am I going to stay or am I going to leave? Every time that thought process goes through a woman’s mind and she stays, it’s one more victory.”

It’s 1 p.m. on a Wednesday and the women are assembled in the meeting room for an informal kind of group therapy, led by a petite but feisty sixtysomething named Miss Nancy (also a recovering addict). First, she asks if anyone has anything they’d like to share. Nickeya says she’s proud she un-friended some harmful people on Facebook last night, and is excited to have been “chosen” as both the focus for this story and some CUB publicity photos.

Searra asks for help completing her sixth AA step (identifying all of her faults), and they all oblige, adding in tons of positive traits for good measure. Then Nancy arranges the women in two rows, facing each other.

“We’re going to play the line game,” she says. The rules go like this: When she says something that a participant agrees or identifies with, they step forward, into the space between the two rows. The first question’s easy: “Step forward if you like pepperoni pizza.” The majority of the group moves. They all laugh. Quickly, the questions get more personal:

Step forward if you’ve ever woken up next to someone the next morning and regretted it.

…If you ever went into a clinic worried you had an STD.

…If you were abused or molested as a child.

By game’s end the women are tossing out statements of their own:

Step forward if you’ve ever had an abortion.

…If you’ve ever put drugs between you and your children.

“If you’ve ever,” says Nickeya, tearing up, “given birth to a drug addicted child.”

The purpose of the exercise is not to humiliate anyone, says Nancy; the purpose is to show that “there is almost always at least one other person standing up. You are never alone in the things you do.”

By the end of the session, they’ve covered some staggeringly deep topics. When a woman who watched her young son get run over by a car says she questions God’s existence—“I ask for signs all the time,” she tells the group. “An angel, a voice, the fucking burning bush”—Nancy stays quiet.

He was there, several of the other women reply. Stories are shared of strangers in McDonald’s who unknowingly encouraged them when they were down, and of random signs they’ve gotten during group activities that seemed directed specifically at them.

“God,” Nickeya says, “works through people.”

Later, though she’s battling a sinus infection, Nickeya’s pleased to show off a new piercing: another tiny diamond, this time at her left cheekbone. She talks about how hard she’s working to earn her oldest daughter’s trust (she’s 11 now and lives in Oklahoma with her father, who works on an oil rig). She talks about her kids’ hands—how soft they all are, how much she misses holding them.

But she also mentions that she’s felt “discouraged” ever since a group meeting with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center about records expungement. “There’s nothing I can do about my felonies,” she says. “I can never be a nurse. I mean, I can go to school and see if the nursing board…” her voice trails off. “But why would I waste four years for them to say, ‘Maybe?’”

She’s conflicted, too, after attending two funerals this past week. Dealers, she’s seen on the news, have been lacing heroin with carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer. The negative side effects have been instant and deadly. Her brother-in-law and her ex were just hospitalized after overdosing. “It’s hard to sit here and stay focused when that kind of stuff’s going on,” she says. “I started worrying about my family. I think I should be out there to protect them.”

But then she quickly corrects herself: “I can’t do that, you know what I mean? I have to think about my kids. I don’t want my kids to be walking to my casket like the two funerals that I went to.”

She doesn’t share any of these feelings with the larger group, though, and by week’s end she’s visibly cold and distant—ignoring texts and staying unusually quiet during group time. She’s still battling that sinus infection, and her eyes are hidden now by a set of false eyelashes. Recovery from prostitution and drug use is like riding a roller coaster, both Viann and Carol say. The mood swings these women experience can be immense and unpredictable. Nickeya, strong as she seems, is not exempt.

One morning, when someone asks the group to say aloud the reasons they’re happiest to be sober, thoughtful answers emerge: freedom, clarity. When it’s Nickeya’s turn, she fumbles, caught off-guard by the question. Finally she blurts out: “Not being dead.”

Less than an hour after that, with no warning and no reason given, Nickeya leaves the program. While the other women are in a closed trauma group, she sneaks out the back door into a waiting car.

Turns out she’d violated one of the house rules over the weekend by staying out overnight without permission. She got in trouble when she returned on Sunday but tested negative for drugs so was allowed to stay at OTS.

Running away isn’t uncommon; Caroline did it. One of the women currently in the program has done it multiple times. Roughly 25 percent of the women OTS has served, says Smith, have come through the program more than once. (From day one, says Melton, “there was no limit on the contact you could have with the program.”) Still, running away means a strong possibility of re-use. And re-use, especially when street drugs are being laced with other drugs not fit for human consumption, is a dangerous proposition.

What, I ask Caroline that afternoon, makes someone like Nickeya leave, but other women stay?

“It’s got nothing to do with weakness or strength,” Caroline says. “It’s willingness.” Willingness, she says, to learn to deal with feelings—both good and bad—as they arise. Willingness, too, to move through them. “Am I willing to continue to feel like this, knowing there is an end?” she says. “Because this woman over here who has this amount of sobriety has told me if I just hold on, this will pass. Am I willing to try it?”

Although Nickeya’s departure hasn’t been formally acknowledged (she technically could return), a house full of more than 20 women will talk. Many already know. Even so, there’s no visible drama. Erin, a timid, brown-haired woman and the program’s newest recruit, is wandering the halls, searching for the washer and dryer. Some of the more tenured participants are in their rooms, trying to reach Nickeya by cell. But for now, no one’s running after her.

Reactions, says Caroline, will be all over the place. “Some are feeling fearful because: By the grace of God there go I,” she says. Some aren’t even at a point in their recovery where they can identify what they’re feeling. And some might be jealous that Nickeya likely got high. “That doesn’t mean you’re not serious about your recovery,” Caroline notes. “It means you’re an addict and that’s normal.”

Either way, she says, they care. But in a different kind of way. They “hope nothing happens to her,” says Caroline, but they also know that “that was her choice,” and that they, in turn, are making a different choice—the choice to stay. “At the end of the day, this is your personal journey, and you have to be responsible for your recovery.”

At 1:44 the next morning, from an undisclosed location, Nickeya posts on her Facebook page. It’s a shared photo of a man in a hoodie, his face obscured by shadows. The words over top of it read: I’m not afraid of change. I’m more afraid of going back to my old ways.

A few hours later, back at OTS, someone pulls her check-in sheet from the white binder. They don’t throw it away, though. They stuff it in the back pocket. Just in case.

It was hard at first, admits Caroline, getting used to living on her own. Well, actually, it was “exciting, unbelievable, scary, and overwhelming.”

“You gotta understand,” she explains, “I wasn’t even sure I wanted this life. I was used to being in Off the Streets, which is a community setting; jail, which is a community setting; and then street life, which is a community setting. I didn’t know what it was like to have a home.”

When Caroline graduated from OTS, in January 2014, she was seven months pregnant. Her days filled quickly. Looking back, she had no idea, she says, how much her life would evolve. Though she gave birth to a daughter in 1996, she became an addict shortly after. “I had never experienced having a child and being sober,” she says. “I wasn’t fully prepared for how that would change me as a woman. Those primitive motherly instincts kicked in and I felt like I had a purpose. I knew I had to be his mother.” Now, in addition to staying sober, one of her main goals, she says, is breaking the generational cycles of drug and alcohol abuse. “I’m hoping,” she says, “I can prevent him from experiencing some of those things.”

Faith and spirituality are key elements of maintaining sobriety for her, as are volunteering at both OTS and Tamar’s Place (a Franciscan-run respite for women in active prostitution and addiction). She’s also taking classes at Cincinnati State to become certified as a Chemical Dependency Counselor Assistant, and she’s moved into a new apartment on the west side. “I’m amazed at the things I’m able to manage on a daily basis sometimes,” she says. “Very normal things, like cook dinner. Things I have the privilege and the opportunity to do.”

Her son, by all accounts, seems a perfectly normal, healthy 2-year-old—finding opportunity in every stolen second to try and flush a basketball down the toilet or climb a row of dresser drawers. “He moves so quick,” Caroline says, laughing.

These are the things that frustrate any mother of a toddler. They’re also the kinds of things that bring on what she calls “overwhelming surges of gratitude.” Recently, while driving and growing increasingly agitated about the traffic, “all of a sudden it hits me,” she says, voice cracking: “You’re sitting in your car. And your son’s in the back seat, in his car seat, and you’re taking him to daycare. That is just so abnormal in my world, you know what I mean? I literally slept in buildings and lived on the street for all those years. For somebody to trust me to take care of this baby every day, to love him and be a role model for him and guide him? That amazes me.”

Like everyone else, addict or not, Caroline has bad days, too. Those are the times she relies heavily on both prayer and the support of her “network”—a group of close friends she’s made since she’s been sober. “I can call and tell them anything. Anything,” she says. “And they’ll either help me through it, or just listen, or love me in spite of what I’m saying. They don’t co-sign for me. They love me enough to be honest with me. And I know that I am able to be a good friend today, too.”

Caroline describes her former life on the street and the life she lives today as two parallel but starkly different cultures. “It’s almost like being picked up out of one world and put in another,” she says. “My goals were very limited when I first came in here because I didn’t think that the doors that have opened were even available to me. It’s important for these women to see that, yeah, it is possible for you to recover. It is possible for you to have a life beyond your wildest imagination.”

It’s been three days since Nickeya left; it’s also my last day shadowing the women of Off the Streets. As soon as I walk through the doors, Angelik Smith is waiting.

“Did you hear?” she asks, before I can even ask why she’s there. She smiles sadly, touches my arm. “Nickeya died Tuesday. Of an overdose.”

We walk inside, away from the bright, hot early August sun.

She hugs me. Steve MacConnell hugs me. Viann Barnett appears soon and does the same. She’s been with the women all night and morning—bringing in grief counselors and welcoming back alumnae who returned the way families do when one of their own dies. This morning they all released balloons from the back patio in Nickeya’s honor. Pink, of course.

Barnett relays the few details she knows, but all that really matters is Nickeya, this daughter and sister and mother of four children, is gone and won’t be coming back.

In the meeting room, I’m both surprised and relieved to see a group of smiling faces. An alum clad in a T-shirt and sweatpants is talking about writing résumés. She’s clearly credentialed, having earned both a master’s degree and a Ph.D., and—after a day of mourning—the women are enjoying her relaxed style. Both Autumn and Amy get hung up on the notion of an objective, saying they have no idea what they would even want to do if they got a job, discussing everything from dog walking to massage therapy. The group ends early; women scatter to the patio for a smoke, or the living room to do each other’s hair.

Sometime later, in a room down the hall, Autumn records a lengthy video tribute to Nickeya on her phone and posts it on Facebook. “This heroin epidemic,” she says, working very hard to control her emotions, “it’s like World War III. Except the humans are fighting each other.” She equates addicts to zombies, and she memorializes Nickeya, too; but she addresses the mixed feelings that those who cared about her still harbor: “If she would’ve reached out, tried a little harder, told on herself, swallowed her pride—because she wasn’t invincible….” Maybe, the unspoken thought goes, she’d still be here.

But the thing is, Autumn’s still here. Even though she said she was only giving it another week. She hasn’t left yet.

Courtney, too—the spirited brunette who once tried to kill herself by stepping out into traffic. (Except the cars all stopped, she told me through tears and laughter.) Now, given yet another chance at life, she’s well over 200 days sober and starting to date again.

Brittany’s only recently connected with her father; she’s hoping to see him soon—maybe after she gets her own place. Wanda’s just moved out—it took a whole day to transport everything she’d crammed into her OTS closet. And Alison’s added some new part-time work to her schedule and is learning, one day at a time, to balance it all.

Success at a place like OTS is best measured, says Judge Russell, in “baby steps.”

Nickeya may not have made it, but she died trying. The only way she knew how.



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