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One American Indian woman's long fight to escape prostitution

After losing her house and kids in 1996, Denise Ellis resorted to prostitution to support her crack habit. For 12 years, Ellis worked the streets, mostly around Bloomington Avenue in Minneapolis' Phillips neighborhood, without a reliable place to live.

"I didn't have any place to go. I wanted to get high, and I couldn't think of a quicker way to do it," she said. Throughout her homeless years, Ellis had stayed with relatives and friends until losing their trust. By early 2009, she was running out of places to stay at night.

As an American Indian, Ellis is more vulnerable to prostitution than most women, according to a first-of-its-kind report addressing the commercial sexual exploitation of American Indian women and girls in Minnesota.

Until the study's recent release, the plight of Ellis and other American Indian women trapped in prostitution has been largely hidden from public view in Minnesota.

"Shattered Hearts," a study released in September by the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, found that in 2007, American Indians made up 2.2 percent of Hennepin County residents but 25 percent of the women there on probation for prostitution-related offenses.


The report sampled 95 Indian women who had used the resource center's services. Most of its clients come from the Twin Cities or had moved to the metro area from reservations in Minnesota and South Dakota. Forty percent said they were victims of such commercial sexual exploitation as prostitution or pornography. Even though 25 of them met the state's legal definition of being trafficked for sex, none of them considered themselves in that situation.

"Almost all of them have early sexual assault traumas. [Most have] high levels of molestation, high levels of incest, high levels of rape, domestic violence," said Suzanne Koepplinger, the center's executive director. "Those early traumas, along with other vulnerabilities like poverty and homelessness, coming into chemical dependency — they're extremely vulnerable."

The general average age of entry into prostitution occurs between 12 and 14, Koepplinger said in an interview.

Since its release, the report has prompted interest about the exploitation issue from legislators and the state Attorney General's Office, she says.

The report outlines recommendations from the center, the victims and the community, but many barriers prevent the law from fully addressing the problem. Ellis' story highlights some of the challenges in making substantial progress on such exploitation.

Getting involved in the trade
Ellis, now 45, was a toddler when her father came to Minneapolis from Park Rapids in search of a better life for the family. Her father, however, died from a heart attack shortly after the move, leaving her mother to raise their 10 children. Growing up, Ellis was physically abused by an older sister, who often watched over the kids, she says.

Then at age 12, Ellis and the family moved to Little Earth, an Indian housing program in the Phillips neighborhood, where she quickly was exposed to alcohol and pot.

The years went by, and when she was in her mid-20s, Ellis met the man who would later father two of her three sons. His brothers had brought him from San Antonio to Minneapolis after gang members shot him in the back, briefly paralyzing him. He successfully recovered and was able to walk again. He and Ellis soon started a life together and had their first son when she was 27.

On Thanksgiving eve in 1995, he suffered septic shock and died the next day. He had had a heroin habit before meeting Ellis and she says she didn't know he was still using until after his death.

Left on her own with her two kids, Ellis started drinking heavily. Before long, a boyfriend introduced her to crack.

What started off as something to do while drinking became much more serious.

"It just got out of hand," Ellis says. "One minute I'm recreationally smoking [crack] and the next thing you know I've got half the Minneapolis and Chicago dope dealers in my house."

Eventually the city shut down her house after inspectors discovered it didn't meet lead standards.

"They gave me a few hours to pack everything up and leave," she said. She grabbed a few pictures of her family, sent her kids to live with her sister and hit the streets. She learned the routine from friends she knew who were prostituting on their own to support their drug habits.

She eventually lost custody of her children after admitting to child protection that she smoked pot. "After I lost my kids, I pretty much gave up on everything," she says. "The drugs got stronger, and the work got easier."

In 1999, she had a third son, who was immediately taken by child services after he tested positive for crack exposure at birth. Using while pregnant is something Ellis really regrets now, she says.

Over the years, Ellis frequently was caught soliciting on the streets. She remembers getting busted four times by undercover cops, receiving numerous loitering citations and spending multiple stretches in jail. She also went through drug treatment 20 times, each time unsuccessfully.

 "I didn't approve of [my lifestyle], but that was the only thing I knew how to do," she says. "I didn't have much to do but want to get high."

Ellis was an easy target because most law enforcement efforts focus on the women, not on their customers or pimps. Inspector Lucy Gerold of Minneapolis' 3rd Precinct explains why.

All it takes to arrest the woman is one cop, but it's much more complicated — and expensive — to go after men. To arrest a john, the police need an undercover female officer posing as a prostitute, a full unmarked car to witness the transaction and a full police car out of sight but close by to make the arrest.

Such john sweeps happen about once a month in her precinct, but individual officers can arrest women any day. "It's really hard getting at johns. It seems like there's an endless supply of them," Gerold says, adding that pimps are no easier to arrest.

Most advocates don't think women should be arrested for prostitution. Mary Ellison, who works with the Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights, says jailing women further stigmatizes them.

"We have to educate law enforcement and make shelter and housing [available] so police have somewhere else to take them," she says.

Sometimes, as a last resort, police arrest women to protect them. This means jailing them when shelter isn't available. "A night in jail is safer than a night in the street," said Sgt. John Bandemer, head of the Gerald Vick D. Human Trafficking Task Force in St. Paul. "It happens all the time."

Clashing perspectives
Advocate organizations like the women's resource center stress that the law needs to stop targeting the women and crack down on the pimps operating behind the curtain.

"The vast majority of women who've been prostituted are victims of federal crime," says Koepplinger, "and yet they get criminalized by a system that says if you're engaged in commercial sexual act, you're a criminal. If [you] were trafficked in as a child … the day [you] turn 18 suddenly [you're] a criminal, why would you go to the police? You're just going to go to jail."

Police don't always see it this way.

"Some women are doing it willingly because it's a lucrative business," says Bandemer, noting that his office found more than 500 local Internet sex ads in one day.

Ellis, who knew a few women who worked for pimps, says most of the women she knew worked independently and prostituted themselves to support their drug addictions. "I don't know of anybody that does it to buy themselves clothes and live nice," she says. "We do it for our drug habits, not because we're being forced to."

She's also skeptical that trafficking is widespread in coercing unwilling women into prostitution. She never experienced that and says, "I don't know anybody that's been forced into it."

Guadalupe Lopez, a Leech Lake resident and coordinator with Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition in St. Paul, says she's seen examples of both. "I wouldn't want to say one's more true than the other," she says.

In an email, Koepplinger says that her center acknowledges that some women start in prostitution as adults, never have pimps and aren't trafficking victims. She says that a widespread misunderstanding of what constitutes trafficking makes it hard to get accurate information. "Many women were first used in sexual exploitation as children, which in turn led to drug addictions, which becomes a vicious cycle, but we really don't have accurate data on frequency or rates of this dynamic," she wrote.

Lack of housing
Ellis came to a crisis early in the 2009, when she was averaging only one meal a day and running out of places to sleep. "I was at the point where I didn't want to live anymore. Really, I hated myself. I didn't like what I was doing," she says. "I was so skinny, people thought I was sick from AIDS."

She was accepted into a Minneapolis dry house in March, a turning point for her. She says getting a place to live after 12 years of homelessness got her to leave prostitution. "I think that's a lot of the problem with these prostitutes out here. Most of them are homeless."

Koepplinger, too, stresses the importance of secure housing, saying that her biggest heartbreak is watching women go back into the trade because they have no living alternative.

Minnesota has an estimated 600 homeless boys and girls on the streets each night, 20 percent of them Indian (PDF). The majority of them are female. They average about 36 hours before they're approached by a pimp to exchange sex for shelter, Koepplinger says.

St. Paul-based Breaking Free is virtually the only organization in the state that works on finding housing for women involved in prostitution and sex trafficking. Resources are scant and funding is tight, and it's not just a poor economy that's making it a struggle.

"The issue we work with is controversial," says Vednita Carter, executive director. "Some don't think it's a worthy cause."

Of the 400 women who stop at Breaking Free each year, 40 percent of them are looking for housing, Carter says, and her nonprofit can only house about 25 women a year.

Amid the state's budget deficit, shelter services are shrinking.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's unallotments recently prompted the state to eliminate two emergency housing aid programs: Emergency General Assistance and Emergency Minnesota Supplement Aid. To Koepplinger, it guarantees more homeless women and children on the streets and more sexual exploitation.

Next steps
While Koepplinger says Sgt. Bandemer's task force in St. Paul is doing great work, she still doesn't hesitate to list the many remaining obstacles.

For one, the nation's victims of sex trafficking receive no federal funding for services, unlike international victims who come to the United States. Also, Minneapolis police haven't had a vice unit for years, according to Gerold and Koepplinger.

But she's encouraged by some recent gains:

• In September, Sen. Al Franken, who serves on the Indian Affairs Committee, successfully offered an amendment that would require the government to report on Indian sex trafficking. The bill awaits a full vote.

• Locally, the Division of Indian Work in Minneapolis does outreach by placing its advocates at high schools and areas frequented by young Indian women.

• And the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition, based in St. Paul, is working on a new report to get the voices and stories of women like Ellis on record. It aims to interview 100 women.

"It's a unique report in that it's a firsthand experience in letting [Indian women's] stories be heard," Guadalupe Lopez says, adding that many times these women are invisible in communities.

A new start
Since moving into the dry house, which accepted her because she was a drug addict, Ellis has kept out of the sex trade. Although she's not drug-free, she's cut her habit from every day to maybe once a month, she says.

She's feeling good about herself, something that wasn't the case at this point last year, she says.

"This place saved my life," she said. "If I go back on the streets, I won't survive next time."

Her health has suffered recently. She had a stroke in August and another right before Christmas. She also deals with diabetes and hepatitis, and hopes her poor health will qualify her for Social Security funding.

Her goal is to move into an apartment and attend school through the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center to do social work. She wants to help prevent other young women from leading the life she did. "To actually care about someone else, you have to have walked in their shoes," she says. "I've been there, and I know their struggle."

Another bright spot: Ellis recently reunited with her sons and keeps in contact with them. "They're the reason I'm still here," she says.

Joey Peters is a MinnPost intern.

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Comments (3)

Legalize and regulate prostitution, male and female, and the moralists among us be damned. It's the only way we're ever going to protect those who are unwilling participants in the trade.

I'll second that. The conservative Nanny State, which legislates (preaches) morality both in and outside of our homes has show to be a failure.

Prostitution and the drug war are but two good examples of this "legislating morality" type of mindset. Both examples have proven to be failures by neither reducing demand in the marketplace and or the availability of the services or product.

This is capitalism in its most basic form. Demand creates supply and sometimes its just that simple. There is a reason its the worlds oldest profession and its called demand.

So the "richest country in the world" can afford to promote itself as the world's guardian of peace and build 750-plus military bases around the world to prove it, but can't afford housing or other basics for its poorest, most vulnerable citizens.

It's way past time for our government to consider seriously that prioritizing corporate and militant interests over basic human safety is not the way to build peace.

One place to start might be to compare the numbers of citizens killed by terrorists (9/11 plus a few hundred, at the most, since) with the number lost to a lack of regular access to health care because they are uninsured (45,000 per year) and those killed by medical/hospital errors (90,000-plus per year).