Denene Yates isn’t really sure how she ended up on the street corner that day, approaching a prostitute.
She had agreed to help a friend who was operating an outreach program for sex workers. With a background in accounting, she thought she would be helping with business and financial aspects of the program.
But there she was, walking toward the woman, not sure what she would say or do when she reached her.
“I started to cross the intersection and she walked toward me. I tell you, she looked like she was going to kill me,” Yates says. “I said to her, ‘I just came out to see how you are doing. That’s all.’ And she threw her arms around me and said, ‘Nobody has asked me how I am; nobody cares how I am.’”
It’s been more than six years since that encounter and Yates hasn’t left the streets, combing Baltimore’s corners and hideaways for women—and increasingly more often, girls—who are prostitutes and victims of sex trafficking.
Her mission is to make them feel cared for, loved and most importantly, safe. She wants them off the streets, healthy and whole. But, Yates says, “When I ask, ‘Why are you out here? What can I do to change your course?’ They say, ‘I don’t have anywhere to go. You want me off the street. Where can I go?’ And that’s why I started Safe House of Hope.”
Safe House of Hope runs two day drop-in centers for prostitutes and sex trafficking victims. At the centers, women can shower or do laundry, receive free clothing and hot meals. The organization, which has one employee and several volunteers, also works with the women to help them get their driver’s licenses or GEDs, apply for social services, enroll in job training and find affordable housing.
“The housing piece is so complicated,” Yates says. “But it is one of the most important pieces. You have to give people viable options if you want them to make better choices.”
Yates has worked with Safe House of Hope since 2009, never taking a salary, because she is so invested in helping the women and girls who are on the street. Often they have fled traumatic or unsafe situations at home or have no place to call home.
“So many people have this idea, a glamorization of what being a prostitute—what being exploited—looks like. The idea is that it is choice-driven,” Yates says. “But people just get sucked into this. And then they’re just stuck. No one wakes up and wants to be a prostitute. No 12-year-old wants to be a hooker or a stripper.”
At Safe House, Yates gives the women and girls a place to rest—one woman she is currently sheltering came with her 2-year-old—with no questions asked. Yates doesn’t require anything of the women, only that they come in off the streets and be safe. Once there, she offers them unconditional love.
“We say, just come and join our family. And as you join our family and as we value you more, we believe you will value yourself more, and begin to dream again and want something different,” she says. “Pimps, they offer you a dream that isn’t real. And we want to offer you a dream that could be real.”