Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Day at YANA

For me a YANA day starts before I reach the building. I drive up Wilkens Avenue in Baltimore between Monroe and Gilmore Streets, peering into the faces of the women who sit slumped on the steps or walk the streets of the neighborhood. Prostituted women in Baltimore rarely dress for their jobs. They wear the same no-makeup, hair pulled back, jeans and t-shirts look that every other woman there does. Even so, just driving by, I usually have a pretty good idea of whether they prostitute or not. Our women are often seriously underweight. At 10:00 in the morning, they can be so exhausted or so doped up that they stagger. Look into their faces, and there's the sort of vulnerability a child might have if she were forced to do a grown-up's hard job and had no hope of relief. Recognizing the prostituted women on Wilkens doesn't take any great perception -- or if it does, then the middle aged men who wash their new cars and excitedly cruise the same strip are all gifted intuitives.

Today, I didn't stop for any of them. I didn't recognize any of our friends, and, though I saw several women who would probably be prostituting later in the day, I didn't see any who looked approachable at the moment. I went on to Hezekiah House, where YANA is currently located, and where I was soon swamped by women from the drug rehab. program next door. These women who came were all pretty new to YANA. For the moment, at least, they weren't prostituting. Many hadn't prostituted for a long time; almost all are sober. They were poor, though, and fragile, and they knew we had good things to give away. Keeping a semblance of order when you're the only person between five such women and fresh bags full of unsorted donations isn't easy.

Crabby, clerical start to the day, in other words. I heard myself saying, "I've told you repeatedly to write down the toiletries you need. . . " and heard a forty-something African American woman apologizing like a child for having touched without permission. Instead of cringing, all I could think was I was glad a fight wasn't breaking out. In over 12 years of dealing with clients who are often seriously traumatized, emotionally disturbed, and drug addicted, we've never had an actual physical fight, though there have been plenty of threats. The closest we ever came to one was when a lot of donations came in. I somehow imagined it would be a good idea to let everyone grab what she wanted.

The only part of the morning I enjoyed was introducing the concept of YANA itself. I told several, seriously interested women that YANA was formed when a social worker, Sid Ford, noticed that there was a population of women who were isolated from the rest of the world -- prostitutes. I tell them she wanted to create a sense of community. While it was very hard for me in the beginning to believe that this was the thing they needed most, it is never hard at all for the clients to understand. They nod like they're in church when I talk about isolation. "YANA stands for You Are Never Alone," I tell them, and some don't react in the least. Others look like they've just found out they're getting a pony for Christmas.

I go on to tell them we offer services: lunch, clothes, Thursday visits from the Health Care for the Homeless, a volunteer psychologist on Wednesdays, help with referrals into treatment programs, a place to rest on a hot or cold day. I finish by telling them that the main thing we offer is the community so many never had. YANA women themselves make up the program, and they make their own decisions to survive the way they always have or to make new decisions about their lives.

The rest of the day, we talk, we eat pizza, Health Care for the Homeless does its magic for the many women in need of care. The women try on warm clothes, and all admire the one young girl who models a gorgeous new suit on her tall, healthy body. "I can wear this to church or a job interview," she says several times, then leaves with a boyfriend. One woman tells me she often sees our "old clients," the ones who came more often when we were located on Pratt Street, close to the part of Wilkens I drove coming in. She mentions several women, including Trina who has not come to YANA in the year since we've moved. Trina believes she can't -- or else she is angry. It isn't clear, but somehow her not coming has something to do with a man who was dangerous. I break the rules and talk about Trina to another client. "We've missed her!" I tell the woman. "We want her back! Tell her to come." The other woman says she'll bring her next week. I'm not holding my breath. There's something else going on with Trina, and how could things not be complicated, angry, filled with a sense of abandonment for Trina? She began living with her molesting uncle when she was still a child. I believe her parents decided to give her to him, knowing why he wanted to take a young girl off their hands. She's middle aged now, and still lives with him. She'll be the first to tell that she made the choice to live the way she does.

When there are only a few of us left, Dolly (a new client, in rehab, sweet, obviously a little emotionally disturbed) turns her attention to Sister Mary, one of the Sisters of Mercy nuns who helps us. Dolly wants to know if "Sister" means Mary is a nun. Mary answers that she is. Dolly has a lot of questions about being a nun, but she gets through them rapid fire until she reaches the main one. "Are you a virgin?" she asks. She has to ask it several times because she is mouthing the words, with her hands cupped dramatically around her mouth. Once Mary understands her, she readily answers that she is. "You are?! Really! I've never met a virgin before!" Dolly can barely contain her delight.

Endlessly good natured Mary, who celebrated her 50th year of being a nun a few years ago, answered all the questions that followed. No, she'd never slept with anyone. She wanted to be a nun. She couldn't marry and still be a nun even if she only slept with her husband. If a man asked her out for a drink, she would explain that she was Sister Mary, and that would probably keep things from going any further. One man had asked her to marry once, but she thought he just wanted to get a green card. Mary was soon laughing. Dolly, realizing at last, that Mary really meant the virginity thing, suddenly began making desperate efforts to console her.
"There are some advantages!" Dolly said. "Child birth hurts! You never had to do that. And, and you never had to mess with men that don't treat you right. Those are advantages!" Dolly repeated her list several times, then thought of another, and pointed out to Mary that she never had to bother with birth control either.

"That's right!" Mary agreed. "I never had to!" She was still smiling. So were Dolly and the rest of the room. In my nearly five years at YANA, I've never heard virginity discussed or a nun grilled on her choices, but it was a YANA moment just the same. A weird little moment of delight as we all got to know one another a bit better.

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Next Posts: We'll meet many more of the individual women and continue to follow them, and we'll talk more about Hezekiah House, Health Care for Homeless, our many volunteers, and the indomitable Sid Ford who founded YANA by driving the very mean streets of Baltimore at night, talking to prostituted women and believing that something good would come of it.

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