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Nashville Program Helps Prostitutes

November 29, 1999

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Regina Mullins pulled her three sons close and smiled. A camera was about to capture her new life.

Mullins had lost custody of the boys _ now age 14, 15 and 20 _ to her mother while she worked as a prostitute, spending nearly everything she made on crack cocaine.

Now she and her sons are reunited as she celebrates two years off drugs, off the streets and out of jail.

Mullins, 37, credits her recovery to God and to a unique private program designed to help former prostitutes stay off the streets by kicking the drug habits that led them there.

Called simply Magdalene, after the Biblical prostitute Mary Magdalene who became a follower of Christ, the program gives prostitutes released from jail drug counseling and a free home for two years. It also pays for them to get their high school diplomas or go to college, and helps them eventually find jobs.

``It was a gift,″ Mullins said. ``It was a gift from God. I had asked Him before I got out, ’I don’t want to go back to the streets. Please help me not go back to the streets.‴

Now she has a new house and works two jobs, telemarketing and caring for a mentally disabled person.

``I’m getting to be a mother again, and that’s kind of scary but I’m doing it,″ said Mullins, her hair wrapped in an intricate weave behind her head, a gold angel pinned to her shirt.

A 1995 survey of 30 prostitutes by a Nashville task force found they were all addicted to drugs. Seventy percent had been sexually molested as children. Forty percent tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Numbers like those helped prompt Becca Stevens, chaplain at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Chapel on the campus of Vanderbilt University, to launch Magdalene in 1997 with five women sharing a house. Now, Magdalene is opening its third house.

Stevens called prostitution ``the quintessential women’s issue,″ because it brings together several problems many women face, including incest, abuse and sexuality.

A lesson of Magdalene, she said, is that there is hope, even for the most desperate.

``There is no place lower to go than being a hooker on Dickerson Road in Nashville, Tennessee,″ she said. ``There is not another rung on the ladder lower, period.″

Magdalene’s annual budget is $50,000, paid for by private donations and by the city’s ``John’s school,″ which allows men arrested for soliciting prostitutes to keep it off their records by paying $250 to attend an eight-hour course on the dangers of prostitution.

Women with Magdalene start with an unusually-long 90-day drug treatment program. At first, they are not allowed to have money, which for many would be a quick route back to drugs. Everything they need is given to them. Later, they can go out and find work.

Despite its name and Stevens’ position, Magdalene is not religiously-based, although many participants have become active in churches.

``We don’t ask them to be part of a spiritual community,″ she said. ``We ask them to work on their spiritual health.″

The women in each house take turns doing chores and gather weekly in group meetings. Their sense of community, Stevens said, is a key to Magdalene’s success.

``I’ve never seen anything like it,″ said the Rev. Jacqueline Means of New York, the Episcopal Church’s national director for prison ministry.

``These women want what we all want,″ she said. ``What we’re all looking for in the world is some place to belong, someone to love us and someone to help us along the way.″

Gwen Davis, 36, said she started walking the streets at age 12, sometimes making $800 a day and using almost all of it to buy crack.

Now, thanks to Magdalene, she has a job at a Dollar General store, a savings account and a future. She shares a bright yellow, single-story wood home in downtown Nashville with other former prostitutes, but her next goal is to raise enough money to buy a house and start life on her own.

``It ain’t for people who need it. It’s for people who want it,″ Davis said of Magdalene. ``Without this program, I’d probably still be out there using.″

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