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Project to offer prostitutes a way out

Her feet would bleed. Her heart would ache, but Renee Hughes couldn't feel a thing.

Not really.

Strolling the sidewalks of 34th Street, Hughes had no worries beyond where she would buy her next hit of crack cocaine. As long as she was walking, even without shoes some days, she knew she was safe.

"If I slept, I'd get raped or beaten or miss the chance to make more money," said Hughes, now 34. "I didn't stand on the corner; I was smart enough to keep moving. And I never stopped."

For seven years, she traded sexual favors for cash or drugs on the St. Petersburg strip known for prostitution. Though she repeatedly was hauled to jail for violating probation, her drug addiction seemed to matter to nobody.

Not once, she said, did anyone offer help.

But a new program in Pinellas County could to change all that. Starting in October, a comprehensive rehabilitative strategy, called Project HOPE, will focus on the needs of women who work as prostitutes. It's the first of its kind in the Tampa Bay area.

St. Petersburg police and Operation PAR Inc. recently received a $60,000 grant for the project from the county's substance abuse advisory board. The Police Department also contributed $12,500, and Operation PAR provided another $7,500.

Under the program, a manager and case manager will spend time in the Pinellas County Jail, offering a variety of services to women who are charged with soliciting. They also will ride with police officers on patrol and talk to women on the streets.

"Our goal is to establish rapport," said Carol White, director of women's administrative services for Operation PAR. "We want to convey to them that we're there to help them."

Women who join the program will be interviewed to determine their needs, and will be directed to counseling programs. They also will be offered ways to finish their education, improve parenting skills and establish a home life.

The program is expected to serve 100 women in the first year, White said.

"Not everyone will stay with it," she said. "You do the best you can. Some women, after a period of time, go back to the street, say they are not ready or say they are not interested."

During the first year, more information will be gathered about the substance abuse among prostitutes and the effects of drugs on the women who turn to the streets for money.

In St. Petersburg, a police study has found that 66 percent of all women arrested in the city are charged with prostitution. Of those, 65 percent have histories of drug violations.

"Right now, there's nothing specifically for these women," said Officer Harry Herbst of the department's anti-prostitution squad. "We have to take every approach we can. We realize we're not ever going to stop prostitution, but we want to keep it under control and give them the needed help."

Eventually, Project HOPE plans to open a residential treatment center similar to the Mary Magdalene Project in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles. St. Petersburg police officers recently went to California to look at the center as a possible model.

The first program of its kind in the nation, the Magdalene Project was initiated 16 years ago to provide a new approach to rehabilitating prostitutes. It provides long-term help and a holistic curriculum designed to develop the women's educational, vocational and social skills.

More than 150 women have received treatment at the center, which boasts a 90-percent success rate, said office manager Bernice Wingerson. It is funded by private donations and grants.

In Pinellas, men arrested for soliciting prostitutes could one day be ordered to help pay for Project HOPE. Coordinators say they will ask that fines and court costs be increased to include a portion of money to fund the program.

As Project HOPE prepares to start, Renee Hughes cannot help but wonder whether the program could have dragged her from the streets.

At 26, she left her husband and 3-year-old son to find crack cocaine. She never returned.

In December 1991, she got in a car with a man and they went to an alley near a St. Petersburg library. The man struck her in the head with a hammer or crowbar.

After a month in the hospital, she spent a couple of weeks at her mother's house before returning to the streets. She finally left those streets for good in July 1994.

In recent months, she has spoken to several groups about her life. She earned her General Education Development certificate last February and plans to attend Pinellas Technical Education Centers in the fall. She also is rebuilding a relationship with her son.

"My biggest regret would be if I didn't learn from all this," she said.