The beat-up face of a teen-age girl eking out a living as a prostitute is the face of homelessness that goes unnoticed by many passersby except her predators
Most of the public views homelessness as a guy standing with a sign on a street corner that reads, “I'll work for food.” Though the message may be a scam, it is how the face of the dispossessed appears for most Oklahomans, said Carl Buckner, program coordinator of Street Outreach Services (SOS) – a division of Youth Services for Oklahoma County Inc.
“We don't look at it. We close our eyes. But these are our children,” Buckner explained. “We are the richest nation that ever lived on this planet that ever existed in history. There shouldn't be a homeless person, No. 1, and there definitely shouldn't be a homeless child.”
Youth Services for Oklahoma County Inc. is a non-profit community organization located in northeast Oklahoma City. It advocates, educates, intervenes and counsels youth and families to make a positive difference in their lives. Buckner's job is to identify the homeless teens and figure out what they need to get off the streets. His task may seem daunting, considering more than 200 runaway and homeless teens walk the metropolitan area in a given day, he said. He identified six homeless teens in March.
The teenagers share a need for employment, educational tools and transportation to other problem-solving agencies. Some homeless Oklahoma City youth have physical or mental disorders such as bi-polar or schizophrenia. So Buckner offers them a connection with health care agencies. When police crack down on prostitution, the business migrates across the metropolitan area. Buckner identified several areas in Oklahoma City, including truck stops closer to Edmond on Interstate 35.
“Why does anybody turn to that?”
An Edmond man said he has seen prostitutes at truck stops near Martin Luther King Boulevard and Interstate 40. One appeared to be a teenage girl, said Andrew Russell, who works as a salesman in the Bricktown area.
“Why does anybody turn to that?” he said. “Possibly she was from a broken home and didn't know what else to do. That's my true feeling. You pull away from looking at someone like that and go, Why does somebody turn into somebody like that, who maybe has potential? Then you start thinking about your own kids.”
As a teenager, working as a truck stop prostitute became dangerously familiar a few years ago for Jessica Longan. Today, the 21-year-old is willing to speak out about her former life as a prostitute in order to educate the public about the severity of the lifestyle. Longan graduated from high school in Perkins in 2000 and two weeks later moved near New York City to work as a nanny. Her stay was brief. She spoke to a 23-year-old man during a phone call to a friend in Oklahoma. Marcus, not his real name, convinced her return to Oklahoma and they lived together briefly in Stillwater. Neither had a job, Buckner said, and they depended on the income Marcus made as a drug dealer. But they consumed most of the drugs before they could sell them, leaving them broke.
“I lost my apartment – electric and everything,” Longan said while sitting in Buckner's office at Youth Services. “We had to move up here (Oklahoma City) with his mom. I got strung out on drugs.” Her drug of choice was methamphetamine, including “crystal meth, crank, coke and crack. We got kicked out of his mom's house because she didn't like the fact that we weren't sharing what we had,” she said.
Life with a pimp
At 18, Longan was homeless. So the couple moved to the City Rescue Mission in downtown Oklahoma City. At first, Longan thought she was the youngest homeless person seeking refuge at the shelter. But she found families there with younger children – some drug addicts. “(Marcus) would always get kicked out of the shelter,” she said. “I never got kicked out, so I was always staying there and he'd stay on the streets.
She depended on the shelter sporadically for a year. She said Marcus was not only a drug dealer, but a pimp. And she began living with another “dope man” when Marcus went to jail. Buckner said his arrest was a drug-related charge.
Most teen-age prostitutes don't live in shelters due to strict curfew rules, Buckner said. They live in motel after motel with pimps who are often drug dealers, Longan added.
As an 18-year-old prostitute, she frequented two truck stops near Martin Luther King Boulevard and I-40. Marcus was also a pimp for three women, she said, and was angry to learn she had used another pimp to sell her body when he was in jail. Longan said that she twice had sex for money.
“Most of what I did was rip the guys off because I was too scared,” she explained. She would sell fake drugs to truck drivers. Then she would quickly jump out of the truckers' cabs and go with Marcus to purchase genuine methamphetamine to satiate their own drug addiction.
Longan knew two other young prostitutes who solicited truck drivers and passersby. One had a regular clientele of truck drivers and another would frequent motels. They never talked about being afraid – even though they had been beat up, Longan said.
“I was with a pimp. When he went upstairs in some motel, he beat the girl up because she didn't give him his money,” Longan said. “I know they got beat up because you'd see bruises.”
Prostitution is easy money when it comes to supporting a drug habit, she said. And sometimes, it seems the only choice for survival. Most truck stops have one or two prostitutes in their midst, she said. As a prostitute, it was easy for Longan to make her presence known by slowly driving near the truckers. Men would signal their desire for her by raising a hand or waving.
“You get out and run up to the trucker and say, 'What do you want? Are you looking for a working girl?”
She tried to be discreet enough to stay away from business operators because she didn't want them to call the police. When she was without a car, she would weave in and out between the trucks on foot.
“It's the thrill of the rush — getting away with doing something like that,” she said.
Change of heart
But Longan soon discovered a clear and present need to get away from prostitution and Marcus. Her need of him began to dissolve. She began resisting her pimp's dominant personality after they lived with Marcus' grandfather for two weeks. Lie after lie became their method of manipulating the older man to give them money, she added. A seemingly endless array of cash was needed for buying illicit drugs.
“This man was like 70-something years old,” Longan recalled. “He's a little old man who has problems anyway, and we kept him up until 5:30 in the morning.” Finally, the grandfather's sleep deprivation from only one hour of sleep every night, caused him to wreck his car. “He hit the side of a building and two other vehicles,” Longan explained.
“He lived. But that day I decided, 'I cannot do this anymore,' because (Marcus) kept going on. He still wanted to do more. He still wanted to go out there and run the streets. It wasn't like he cared about his grandfather.”
“I figured, 'If he doesn't care about his grandfather, what makes me think he's gonna care about me?” Longan realized she must care for herself. She had to love herself.
Returning to the City Rescue Mission, Longan met a man at an Alcoholics Anonymous class who cared about her, she said. Larry helped her untangle her life with the pimp and the Rescue Mission's work program helped her cessation from drugs. She shared a room in the shelter with three other females.
Then Longan and Larry rented a one-room apartment near Northwest Sixth Street and Shartel. And he found work through a temporary job agency. Her sobriety lasted for two months before she relapsed back to addiction.
But Longan said she conquered her demons and has since been sober. “I will always be an addict. Once you do it once, you're always an addict. I will never be cured no matter how long I am sober. ”
She said God provides her strength for sobriety. “All I've got to say is ask the Lord to help you. If you don't have Him, you're not going to get anywhere.”
Off mean streets
Longan and Larry were eating dinner at the shelter when a 15-year-old girl told them about Buckner.
“I saw Carl one day and I was like, 'Hey, I need you,” Longan recalled. She learned from Buckner that at 18, she was a year over the age limit guidelines Youth Services invoked to help teenagers. Youth Services is a federally and state funded agency that offers shelter for at-risk youth. And most of the children accepted at the Youth Services' shelter are referred there by the state Department of Human Services. Many are in transition as foster children. Longan said she implored Buckner for help. And he was able to make an exception by providing her with clothing and transportation to appointments for affordable housing. He helped her find a job.
“I was always there for her,” Buckner said. “I might have 15 kids on my case load, but Jessica always knew that maybe if I can't get you today, I'll be there tomorrow, if I can.”
She persevered. I kept telling Jessica, 'You can do this. You don't have to live this kind of life. You don't have to be smoking crack and selling your body. You're attractive. You're intelligent and you've got a lot to offer life. And she listened."
Today, Longan has a steady job as a car-hop for an Oklahoma City Sonic Drive-In. And Larry works as a waiter. “I have a loving man that doesn't force anything onto me. He's not a drug addict,” she added. Their 7-month-old son, Jordan, is the focus of her life.
“I will not mess up for him,” Longan said. Homeless children come from all social stratum, including prominent families in Edmond. Children in Edmond hurt just as they do in an Oklahoma City ghetto, Buckner explained.
Running away from abuse
Most men soliciting teenage prostitutes do not appear as seedy-looking guys just out of prison. Some drive up to a street corner in a brand new Mercedes. “I've seen it,” Buckner said. “A successful businessman. He probably had a wife, family, maybe he was a CEO. And he was looking for a young boy to have fun with.”
The majority of homeless teen-age prostitutes are white females, Buckner said. But he has also identified a transient population of young males passing through Oklahoma City to another state.
“To get money, they'll go over to the gay community on 39th and Penn,” he said. “And they'll hustle and sell their body to get food and drugs.” Buckner drives through the popular gay bar district at night, offering condoms to homeless teenagers for protection against sexually transmitted diseases. He offers them counseling and invites them for a free HIV and tuberculosis test. Once they realize he is not a law officer, they usually accept his offer. Buckner said he doesn't pass judgment on the youth. He doesn't act as a dictator but asks the youth to make a healthy choice in life. Hardship draws the teenagers to cooperate.
“It's high-risk behavior, and I just don't want something bad to happen to you,” Buckner said he cautions them.
A history of child abuse is the root cause for virtually all teenagers to become homeless, Buckner has learned. Some teenagers are told to leave home by a parent who wants to protect his or her own security with an abusive partner, he said.
“There's also the variable that parents are substance abusers. They may be sexual abusers, emotional abusers. Some kids are forced to leave, just to get away.”
Parents or other family members embody 87 percent of confirmed abuse, according to Prevent Child Abuse Oklahoma, a nonprofit group affiliated with the national organization Prevent Child Abuse America. Buckner recalled a 14-year-old girl who ran away from her single mother. She could no longer stand the invasive swarm of strange men sleeping with them. He had to report the child abuse case to the state Department of Human Services.
'Look out for your kids'
Longan doesn't blame her parents, she said. Today, she's grateful they tried to convince her to change. Her father works as a machine operator and her mother is an office manager. She said her family taught her right from wrong. She said that she had been naive about the devastating consequences of drug use. At 15, she smoked marijuana for the first time. Within three years, she was addicted to methamphetamine. “If there's people out there that's gonna read this story – that have kids and are doing (drugs) – look out for your kids,” Longan said.
She plans to educate her baby boy about the harms of alcohol and illicit drugs before he becomes a teenager. “He's my pride and joy. He's the first thing I think of when I wake up and the last thing I think of when I go to bed. I love my little man.”
By James Coburn
8 August 2003