A dozen miles from downtown Houston, cars inch down an industrial side street and drivers idle by a cluster of young women bathed in streetlight, brokering primal transactions. A middle-aged woman in stilettos and a tight-fitting shirt stretched down to her thighs crosses a feeder road on a weekday morning, flicking her tongue suggestively at commuters stopped at the light.
A few blocks away, tenants tell the building manager they've seen strangers having sex outside their doorways, in their complex's laundry room and inside Range Rovers in the gated parking lot. A kindergartner and first grader wonder aloud on their walk to school about the ladies standing around with their privates showing. These scenes might raise eyebrows in sprawling suburbs and well-heeled city districts, but they are ordinary and unremarkable to shopkeepers and apartment dwellers in this urban patch on the southwest outskirts of the city.
It's known to prostitutes, cops and johns as the Bissonnet Track. The neighborhood has earned an international reputation in recent decades for the street trafficking that permeates everyday life. Arrests have made barely a dent in the criminal activity.
Now, local officials have taken the radical step of asking a judge to declare several blocks off-limits to more than 80 people accused of engaging in prostitution — labeling them nuisances to the community and threatening fines if they return. The mayor and police chief trumpeted the rare ban last August, Houston residents and business owners cheered the county's calls for an "anti-prostitution zone" around a triangle framed by U. The requested civil injunction, they say, will help shut down the sex trade on the Bissonnet Track. But as a legal challenge plays out in court, criticism has mounted.
Anti-trafficking organizations say the civil suit against alleged prostitutes, pimps and johns could harm victims of the sex trade. Civil liberties advocates say it violates fundamental rights without addressing the problems. Lawyers for the accused call it misguided and punitive — targeting people for selling themselves but ignoring the circumstances that led them to sex work. Kathryn Griffin, center, of the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable's office, le a support group for ex-prostitutes and sex-trafficking victims at a mansion in Houston.
Griffin, 59, calls herself an "ex-ho" and says it took her 22 rehabs sex shake her crack addiction. For those working the streets, it's known as "the game": the life and stories of the sex trade, the rules of survival. Kathryn Griffin has spent years on the front lines of an achingly complex undertaking, helping people find their way out of the life.
In her local recovery group, none of about 30 former prostitutes and trafficking victims had heard of free t effort by the state and county to eject people like them from the streets.
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Do y'all know we a nuisance? Sure, Griffin said, they had brought hardship to the neighborhoods they worked, but they had shouldered traumas of their own. Messing up didn't make you disposable. People cycle through prison and back to the life, Griffin said. Going straight requires honesty, dedication and time. She then rolled into a favorite riff — slipping into character to tell them they'd never break free if they heeded the wrong messages from the wrong people.
There's no reason you should be broke as long as you can have sex!
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Miss Kathy, as she's known by three generations of people trying to exit "the game," is a brash-talking former prostitute and ex-backup singer for Rick James and Parliament with roots in Inglewood, Calif. It took her 22 rehabs and 22 years to shake a crack habit and confront the trauma and sexual abuse she endured as and later as a call girl. The prospect of 35 years in the penitentiary propelled her into becoming what she calls "a retired ho.
Kathryn Griffin formerly bought and used crack at this house, which was vacant in when this photo was taken. Griffin now runs recovery groups for ex-prostitutes and trafficking victims at the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable's office and at the Plane State Jail in Dayton. Staff file photo. Griffin, 59, hosts the weekly gathering at a friend's ornate mansion typically used for weddings and events.
She is also founder and director of Our Roadway to Freedomanother "ho class," as she calls it, at Plane State Jail, a women's lockup in Dayton northeast of Houston. She served a stint there from before entering a Harris County drug program. Group participants include mothers and grandmothers with toddlers wandering at their feet. They share victories and terrifying moments from their week, as Griffin intercedes with mini-lectures on topics such as, "You shouldn't have never gone back to him," and the pitfalls of shoplifting at Walmart.
On any given week, she will make a point in song, unleash a string of profanities and pause to praise God. The Bissonnet Track veterans at a recent meeting were mostly transplants to Houston who said trauma and addiction led them to prostitution. Maylela Lucas, 42, a transgender woman with a sunny demeanor, grew up in a turbulent military household in rural North Carolina.
She contracted HIV at 16 when her father raped her, she said. He died a few years later. Maylela had to become somebody to get away from the pain. She was working as a female impersonator when an addict boyfriend introduced her to crack cocaine, which freed her from the incessant trauma of the abuse.
She started prostituting north of Bissonnet in the s to fund her habit. The money was easy, she said. Maylela Lucas, 42, who was born Jeremy, grew up in rural North Carolina.
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She said she contracted HIV at 16 after her father raped her. You know? I began to change my identity because Jeremy was hurting so bad. Maylela had to become somebody to get away from the pain," she said. One customer stabbed her after he saw she had a penis. Lucas needed stitches for the wound but she didn't go to a doctor until after she spent the day's earnings getting high.
Another veteran of the Track, Tracy, ran away from a big middle-class family in Chicago where her father partied and gambled. Like several people interviewed by the Houston Chronicle, Tracy, 49, asked that her full name be withheld to protect her safety.
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She said she entered the sex trade at 14 and began dating a drug dealer who gave her free samples. She picked up a crack addiction as a young mother in Houston and supported her habit working "renegade" — without a pimp — blocks from her home on the Bissonnet Track. When she was 25, she said, a customer raped her at gunpoint. Tracy, 49, grew up in a middle class family in Chicago and left her home young. She started prostituting at She later worked on the Bissonnet Track and was assaulted.
The memories of mortal peril — involving knives, guns, beatdowns and hostage-takings — are common in Griffin's orbit, as are stories of friends lost to murderous pimps and johns. Some of the homicides are unsolved, such as the brutal stabbing death of year-old Natalie Fisher, whose body was found in a Houston ditch in Fisher, a suspected trafficking victim from Central Texas, ly had listed a motel in the heart of the Track as her home address.
Fisher's mother is now suing the motel on charges the owners failed to intervene when a pimp allegedly held her there and forced her into sex work. Another of Miss Kathy's charges, Kristen Howk, is a rapper from New York with torn jeans and tattoo scribbles on her arms, neck and face.
The year-old said she worked the streets of Houston from the ages of 19 to She was raped more times than she can count.
She said she maintained her sanity by shutting off all sensation during sex. Howk attends Kathryn Griffin's support group for ex-prostitutes and sex trafficking victims.
Outside the support group, Griffin works with law enforcement to rescue sex trafficking victims. In 16 years, she has met thousands caught up in prostitution and trafficking, she says. She's at the mercy of her cellphone, which rings at all hours, dozens of times a day. Idling in her car outside a warehouse on a December morning, Griffin got a call from Sierra, 23, an intellectually disabled woman with epilepsy she hadn't heard from in a while.
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InSierra was rescued by a good Samaritan in Houston while being attacked by two men near the downtown bus station. When emergency crews arrived, she was convulsing on the sidewalk. Sierra told police she'd been kidnapped from a convenience store in Ohio by a Houston man who drove her to Texas and compelled her to work on Bissonnet during the Super Bowl. When she failed to make her quota, the pimp dropped her off near the bus station, she said.
Sierra was in ish state when discharged from Ben Taub Hospital the day after the attack, according to Griffin, who'd been summoned to pick her up. Sierra recuperated at Griffin's home two years ago but ultimately returned to Ohio. On the December call, she said family members there had spent her Social Security funds and she was homeless.
The young woman switched to video chat and positioned her phone to show where "the dude she was messing with" — her new pimp, Griffin surmised — had torn her hair out because she kept having seizures and refused to work.
All that long hair I had when you seen me," said the young woman, propped up on elbows on an unmade bed.
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You see my face? Real bad. That's why I said I've gotta get out of here. Griffin ended the conversation, lit a cigar and turned her car toward the Bissonnet Track. She exited the Beltway near a local chain motel with "no prostitution" s posted in the parking lot. Griffin then turned off the main boulevard onto Plainfield Street, pulling in beside a young woman in a halter top and red booty shorts waiting for customers in sports cars and utility trucks at the end of the lunch rush.