GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Three women shared their stories with FOX 17 of what life is like working in the sex industry in West Michigan, how they were able to get out, and how they’re now helping others to leave the life behind as well.
On the streets of Grand Rapids there are women selling themselves for sex and chances are, it’s happening without most people taking notice.
The FOX 17 cameras were invited to see the women working the streets for ourselves.
We drive around on a cold, snowy Friday night, and a stretch of Division Street in Grand Rapids appears lifeless.
Leslie King said her 20 years experience as a prostitute on these streets has equipped her to see what others cannot.
“It comes alive,” said King. “This city comes alive. It’s like a big game of chess. Everybody is sitting around, seeing who is going to make what move.”
Anny Donewald is another former prostitute that found her way out.
“I’ve been in the sex industry myself. I was in it for six years,” said Donewald. “People in West Michigan think, oh, it’s not here, prostitution is not here. Are you out of your mind? Of course it’s here.”
At 19-years-old Anny Donewald dropped out of Western Michigan University and fell into the world of prostitution.
Donewald said, “It was supposed to be temporary but now that I am making no less than 12 hundred dollars a night, what am I going to do.”
Christine Sheehy was also lured into the prostitution industry by money. In just six months, Sheehy went from exotic dancer to selling herself for sex.
“They tip you like a thousand dollars afterwards and you’re like well I guess that was worth it,” said Sheehy.
If money was the reason to enter into the profession, drugs were the reason these two gave for coming back time and time again.
“It’s really hard to fake liking what these guys are doing to you if you are sober,” Sheehy said.
The money that Donewald was making, was being spent on her addiction.
“I was using cocaine, I was doing meth, I was drunk everyday,” said Donewald.
Then there is Leslie King who said at the age of 15 she was forced into prostitution by her pimp.
That was the beginning a career spanning two decades with a criminal record just as long.
King said she was arrested at least once a week during that time.
“Then I got a job at the Grand Rapids Police Department. That was funny, the same police that chased me for 20 years. Hilarious.”
Leslie said she’s still on the streets today, but now she’s looking for girls who are ready for a second chance.
“You are helping to empower women to help others, and that is a big thing,” said King.
When our cameras went out with King it took us less than an hour to find one of women hiding in plain sight. We pulled over on Division Street, just North of 28th.
King gets out of the car and crosses over to the woman. At first the woman said she didn’t recognize King, but when King takes off her hat the two hug and share a moment of prayer.
The two wipe tears from their eyes, and walk in different directions.
Second later, King watches the same woman get into the SUV of a potential client.
King gets back in the car and catches up to the SUV in a nearby parking lot. King gets back out and comes face to face with the driver. He drives around her roadblock and speeds off with the woman in the passenger seat.
King knows there will be another night, another chance to save the one that got away.
When King is not on the street, she is fighting prostitution from her non-profit called Sacred Beginnings.
Through the non-profit women have the option of staying at a safe house in Grand Rapids.
Her goal is to convince sexually exploited women to come to the safe house before they are picked up by police.
“Every time they catch a woman, they still call me,” she said.
According to the Grand Rapids Police Vice Unit, there were 110 prostitution related arrests in 2012. In 2011, there were 79 arrests and in 2010, 96 total arrests.
Police say prostitution is a consistent problem full of familiar faces.
King isn’t the only person in West Michigan fighting to get women off the streets.
Anny Donewald said she goes out looking for those wanting to leave the life behind as well.
Like King, Donewald has a non-profit called Eve’s Angels.
“You have a team of people that love you just the way you are, we spread the message of hope,” said Donewald.
In a way that a prostitute can use their own experience to hide in plain sight, Donewald uses her experience to find them and offer alternatives. As was the case for Christine Sheehy.
“I became not even my own person anymore,” said Sheehy. “I was basically something that people could just use and that was it.”
Now, Sheehy said with the help of Eve’s Angels she is out of the industry for good.
“I just graduated college and I am an official licensed cosmetologist,” said Sheehy.
Now, she too is working to find others who have fallen into prostitution.
Sheehy said, “I went through what I went through and now I can go back and help other people out of what they are going through.”
Eve’s Angels has offices in Grand Rapids, Detroit, Chicago and Indianapolis. Anyone that wants to get involved can visit the Eve’s Angels website.
You can also visit Sacred Beginnings website, and help in King’s mission. She said she is in the process of raising $280,000 for a second safe home for as many as 12 women.