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Shelters from the storm

A prostitute for 20 years, Cherie Jimenez finally fled that world, kicked drugs, and turned her life around. Now she helps other local women do the same.

Cherie Jimenez Cherie Jimenez outside her house in Roslindale. Of the 125 clients she's tracked, about half have left prostitution. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / June 15, 2010

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A lot of people knew Cherie Jimenez in the 1970s. They just didn’t all know about each other.

There were her feminist friends in Cambridge, the ones she worked with to establish Transition House, the first emergency shelter for domestic violence victims on the East Coast.

And then there were the men she was meeting as a prostitute, connecting with them through escort services and arranging for dates in apartments or hotels. In this life, she used heroin and was beaten, abused, and humiliated.

The insights she gained over two decades in “the life’’ — including how easy it is for smart and vulnerable young women to slip into prostitution and how hard it is to get out — have led to Jimenez’s new calling.

She is the founder of Kim’s Project, a Boston-based program offering support services and resources for women working in prostitution and hoping to get out. “I’ve met some extraordinary young women, women I’m honored to meet,’’ Jimenez said. “Nobody says to me, ‘I want to do this work.’ ’’

Many of the women Jimenez works with come from troubled, abusive families, and have been living this life since they were teenagers. By the time they are 18, when they can no longer stay in foster care or group homes, they turn to prostitution for want of other options. “They had no love in their lives, no caring, no direction, no sense of community, no place to belong to,’’ Jimenez said. “They’re tired, and they want a way out by the time they’re 20.’’

Jimenez, who turned to prostitution when she was 20, spent the next two decades working in the sex trade — a tangled life revolving around pimps, drugs, escort services, and furtive sexual liaisons everywhere from the Ritz to Revere. Jimenez knows how much things have changed. Prostitution migrated from the Combat Zone to the neighborhoods and now thrives on the Internet.

“They can have a woman delivered to any location they choose, and they don’t have to troll the streets. They don’t have to go to a bar or strip club anymore,’’ said Melissa Farley, a San Francisco psychologist and researcher specializing in prostitution. “And when they are busted, they resign from being the governor of New York.’’

» ‘WE LEAVE WITH NOTHING’

Still, the life of a prostitute is fundamentally the same. “I understand the game,’’ said Jimenez, a slender, youthful woman with blond hair and a warm smile who will turn 60 this month. Jimenez began to turn her life around 20 years ago. She left an abusive relationship and got off heroin. She earned a degree in management from the University of Massachusetts Boston. She raised three children, two of whom went to college, and now has three grandchildren, including one at Smith College.

Four years ago, she started Kim’s Project, located in The Family Justice Center of Boston near Boston University, a collaboration of several agencies serving victims of child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault. There is no actual “Kim.’’ It’s simply a name Jimenez chose in memory of all women murdered or injured while in prostitution.

The women who find their way to her have usually been referred by the courts, the police, or federal authorities. Usually, they’re in a state of crisis: beaten up, arrested, pregnant.

Jimenez works out of a spartan, one-room office with a part-time assistant and a handful of volunteers. Funding comes from a federal grant and private donations, enabling her to offer women emergency provisions such as clothing, toiletries, a Charlie Card, and temporary financial assistance. Of sex workers, she said, “Sadly, when we leave, we leave with nothing. It’s not like there’s money in the bank.’’

She tries to connect women with court advocates, social services, and women’s shelters, but admits there isn’t much housing out there for them. “Very few places are able to accommodate their unique needs and understand their story,’’ she said. “These are women who haven’t had a sense of family. They have limited coping skills. They’re angry and on edge and have trouble under the constraints of rules.’’

She does not pressure women to leave prostitution, knowing that the way out is complicated and the journey long. But she encourages women to rethink the direction their lives have taken, often sharing her own story as inspiration.

“It helps when they see people who have transformed their own lives,’’ Jimenez said. “I’ve become a parent to a whole lot of young people.’’

“She is dedicated and humble and very grounded,’’ said Sergeant Detective Donna M. Gavin of the Boston Police Human Trafficking Unit, located upstairs from Kim’s Project. “For Cherie to have come from such difficulties, and to go to school and to give back, she’s amazing.’’

» STARTING THE HARD LIFE Jimenez divulges few details about her early life, other than she grew up in the New Jersey area in a family that was not close. In 1967, at 17, she took a trip to Puerto Rico with friends. “I had the spirit of adventure of the ’70s,’’ Jimenez said. “I was kind of a risk-taker, a free spirit.’’ There, she met a man (“a very educated man’’), got pregnant, and had a baby. They married and moved in with his family.

He turned out to be abusive to her and her daughter. Eventually she left him, and when a friend told her about a way to support herself by entertaining European businessmen who would underwrite the cost of her apartment, she thought she’d give it a try. “I was young and I was blond,’’ she said. “You find your way.’’

She left Puerto Rico and found her way to other places — Michigan, Toronto, Mexico City — managing to support herself by prostitution. In 1975, she moved to Cambridge, and was immediately swept up by the energy of its vibrant feminist movement and the sense of community among the women she met. If there was a cause to be embraced, Jimenez was there. She bought her groceries at food co-ops. She read the work of Malcolm X. She supported Cesar Chavez, the Farmworkers Union, the grape boycott. “We were going to create a new world,’’ she said.

Not surprisingly, one cause she connected with was helping domestic violence victims, though the term wasn’t yet common currency. She told friends about a women’s shelter she’d seen while living in Toronto, and volunteered to open her apartment on Pearl Street to women fleeing violent relationships. They posted signs all over Cambridge and organized a women’s march to raise money. By June 1976, there were 25 women and children living in Jimenez’s tiny apartment. The shelter evolved into Transition House, now 35 years old and relocated to a different part of Cambridge.

For all the intimacy of these friendships, Jimenez told no one that she was earning her living in prostitution, mostly on the North Shore. She justified it by telling herself it was consistent with the women’s movement. In the 1970s, “it was looked upon that you could do what you want with your body. I was in control of my life.’’

She wasn’t, of course. By then, she was addicted to heroin. Soon she severed her ties to Cambridge.

She starting working for an escort service, meeting clients “in the Westins, the Marriotts, all over the place.’’ She met a man who became her boyfriend and pimp. She had two more children, was being beaten by the boyfriend, who had a serious drug habit and was in the process of being indicted, and was being robbed frequently. Eventually, she had to stop working for the escort service. “You can’t present yourself with marks on your face because someone last night punched you.’’ She started working the street, doing a circuit around Stuart Street, and traveling to other states.

This went on until 1990, when she was 40, and there was a serendipitous opportunity to leave. Her boyfriend had a minor accident with her and the children in the car. While he was distracted, she grabbed the kids and bolted. They hid under a porch and she called a shelter. “Which was really embarrassing because, don’t forget, I started one,’’ Jimenez noted, wryly.

She was through with the life. “It was the last time I was going to get punched in the face or get sick or have someone say, ‘Bitch, how much money you got?’ ’’

She moved to Waltham, got off drugs, and spent the next five years working, going to college, and raising her children. She graduated in 1995. As hard as the life was for her, she thinks that women today have it even harder. At least she had experienced what it meant to have a sense of community, to be inspired, and have hope.

“Now you have young women with no sense of anything in life, no hope. When I came here, I came to a community where people actually cared about each other. To these women, doing what we did in Cambridge is not in their vocabulary. Education is not in their vocabulary. They don’t have people they can trust. So I listen to their stories.’’

» ‘SHE NEVER GAVE UP’

Of 125 clients whom Jimenez has tracked, about half reported they had left prostitution. Only 16 were able to find permanent housing. Five are enrolled in a GED program, 31 out of 70 successfully completed the terms of their probation. Seven are in college.

One of them is Kristina, 26, born in Lowell. Her mother was a drug addict and prostitute. From the age of 3 until 6, when social services removed her from her home, Kristina looked after her two younger siblings. “I had no childhood, at all,’’ said Kristina, who will not disclose her last name because she fears retribution from an abusive boyfriend.

She spent her youth in more foster homes than she can remember. “I had nobody, no family. Nothing.’’

When she was 17, she met a pimp and eagerly went to work for him, lured by the promise of fast money. She worked in Chinatown, Kenmore Square, even Las Vegas, where the money was better and “high rollers’’ she met were willing to part with $10,000 for a night.

There was a price to pay. “Pimps beat the [expletive] out of me,’’ she said. She knew women who were virtually enslaved by pimps, women who were beaten for looking out a window. In 2007, she found out she was pregnant, and decided she was finished with the life. There were outstanding warrants on her for prostitution charges and she turned herself in to a court. “What was I going to do,’’ Kristina said, “have my kid in jail?’’ A sympathetic judge dropped the charges, and Kristina was referred to Kim’s Project.

Three years later, her life is transformed. She lives in transitional housing, her son is in day care, and she’s attending a community college, hoping to be an X-ray technician. “I was overwhelmed at first, I won’t lie,’’ she said. “But Cherie pushed me, she kept me going. She never gave up on me.’’

Even now, 35 years after she helped found Transition House, Jimenez’s legacy there lives on. “What’s really impressive is not only is she a kind of mother of this movement, but she is continuing to lead it,’’ said Risa Mednick, the board chair of Transition House. “She is really instrumental in creating innovative programs.’’

Adds Ronit Barkai, director of housing programs at Transition House: “Every time we tell our story, we tell of how a woman with a lot of courage back in the ’70s, when no one was talking about domestic violence, opened up her door to other women and started this agency.’’

Linda Matchan can be reached at l_matchan@globe.com.

A COMPLICATED LIFE A poster designed by Betsy Warrior and Cherie Jimenez to publicize the Women Support Women march and rally at Government Center in 1976. One of the organizers of the march, Jimenez was instrumental in creating Cambridge's Transition House, the first battered women's shelter on the East Coast. Her friends didn't know that she was also battling heroin addiction and working as a prostitute at the time. A COMPLICATED LIFE
A poster designed by Betsy Warrior and Cherie Jimenez to publicize the Women Support Women march and rally at Government Center in 1976. One of the organizers of the march, Jimenez was instrumental in creating Cambridge's Transition House, the first battered women's shelter on the East Coast. Her friends didn't know that she was also battling heroin addiction and working as a prostitute at the time.