On some dark nights in Camden, women about to be arrested for prostitution are given a choice: Proceed to jail or go instead to a local nonprofit offering a warm place to stay, someone to talk with and a possible new start on life. Believe it or not, the choice isn’t always easy.

3 Angelina

Recovering addict Angelina Jones

Three years ago, Angelina Jones was dope sick and desperate on a Camden corner, looking for a man who’d pay her, in cash or heroin, for sex.

“It was desolate,” the 26-year-old says. “It was nothing. I had nothing – nothing to look forward to and nobody. When you’re out on the streets and getting high or you get money or catch a date, it’s like you just hit the jackpot. But toward the end you don’t even get high anymore. You don’t feel anything. You feel like you’re dead.”

More than a dozen years earlier, Brenda Antinore was in a similar position. The former high school teacher and her husband Bill, an attorney, had fallen headfirst into addiction, embezzling from a government trust fund Bill handled to pay for their crack-cocaine habit.

Brenda lost her teaching license. Bill was disbarred and served a prison sentence. When the dust settled, the couple got back on their feet and committed themselves to cleaning up the neighborhood where they’d once bought drugs.

2 SheHasAName_459

Brenda Antinore works to get women off the street

Brenda founded She Has A Name, an organization dedicated to Camden’s drug-addicted prostitutes, in 2005. On hot days, she’d hand out water bottles. In the winter, she’d distribute coats. Every day, Brenda was out on the street, getting to know the ladies of Broadway.

Over the years, the nonprofit grew. Now, volunteers accompany the Camden County Metro Police on prostitution stings once a month. If a woman is about to be arrested for prostitution, she is given the option of working with She Has A Name instead. Women who agree are shepherded to Antinore’s living room, where she and her volunteers offer love, support and a way out.

But not every woman takes that free pass the first time it is offered. Even for Angelina Jones, years passed before she accepted help.

Brenda first met Jones in 2010.

“I was walking along the streets, feeling completely lost,” Jones remembers. “I wanted to get high so bad, and Brenda pulled up on the side of the road. I was running away, cursing at her, and she still pursued me and showed me love. She said, ‘I’ve been where you’ve been. I understand.’ No matter what I did, she pursued me. She did so much more than I deserved.”

While trying to restore the lives of these troubled women in Camden, Brenda developed a partnership with the local police force and county prosecutor’s office. At the same time, Jones had become an informant – albeit a reluctant one – in a case against then-sheriff’s officer Thomas W. Smith.

“He was soliciting sex from prostitutes and sometimes paying them with drugs that had been confiscated by officers,” says Sgt. Tom DiNunzio, who investigated the case. “When I was undercover, I got to know a lot of girls, but Angelina was the primary girl being solicited by Smith.”

“I was mad,” Jones says, “because I had to sit there and talk about somebody that had helped me. Smith helped me get high, got me drugs, would pick me up from different places when I got stranded. I felt like all that was being taken away.”

But Jones did cooperate with DiNunzio’s investigation, and as trust grew between them, she began to contemplate the possibility of a better life.

“When I first met Tom, I was in jail, and I was thinking, ‘He’s just another guy that’s going to do whatever, he doesn’t care,’” Jones says. “But he kept continuing to support me. He was very patient. I remember once I said I’d meet him, and I went and got high instead. He came and found me. He was just kind and willing to help, and I was grateful that somebody like that could have a heart for women like me.”

As the case against Smith was nearing prosecution, Jones had what she considers a near-death experience.

“Smith picked me up and drove me to a field,” she remembers. “We got out, and he walked me toward the woods. Before that, we’d always had sex in his car. But he still had his gun on his leg, and I thought he was going to kill me. I thought, ‘He knows everything, and this is it – I’m going to die.’ That’s when I realized that I really was going to die in Camden; either I was going to get a bad dose or be raped and killed. If I didn’t kill myself, somebody else was going to, and I realized I did not want to lose my life.”

That moment led Jones to She Has A Name, and she became the first Camden prostitute to be sent to an out-of-state, in-patient treatment program in lieu of sentencing.

Antinore attended Angelina Jones' graduation from a recovery program in 2014

Antinore attended Angelina Jones’ graduation from a recovery program in 2014

Today, Jones is healthy and happy, living and working at a home for women overcoming addiction and alcoholism in New York state. When she is ready, she says, she will return to Camden to serve with She Has A Name.

While Jones is a success story, many more women are still struggling with demons and resisting help. “Even when they act like they don’t want your help, we don’t stop trying,” says Sgt. Vivian Coley, a Metro detective who works closely with the women and has posed as a prostitute herself during stings. “We know what kind of danger they’re in. I’ve been out there. Guys pull up with their pants already down. These are middle-class, suburban white men, and they treat you like a piece of meat. They talk to you like you aren’t a person. They don’t care about these women.”

Coley says she and her fellow officers try to remind the women there are people who care, and who want them off the drugs and off the street.

“We put them in touch with their families. A lot of these girls have families and people who miss them,” Coley says. “They cry so much. They’ll act tough at first, but when you ask them about their children, that’s when they start to cry.”

Antinore's home has a dedicated bedroom for women who need a safe place to sleep

Antinore’s home has a dedicated bedroom for women who need a safe place to sleep

Brenda and Bill Antinore recently moved into a renovated home in Camden. The warm, inviting house serves as their residence, ministry office and safe quarters for women in need.

“When the ladies say, ‘I’ve had enough, I’m done,’ we can give them a safe place to detox in the comfort of a home,” Brenda says. “If they’re not quite ready, they can still come here. They can take a hot shower, be surrounded by people who care. Sometimes it’s a gamble, and we know that. Somebody leaves here and we don’t know if we’ll ever see them again. It wouldn’t be true to say we have more success than failure, but the successes matter more.”

DiNunzio continues to work toward eliminating Camden’s drug problem. He believes once the drugs disappear, the prostitution will, too.

“If we eliminate heroin and crack, these girls aren’t out here,” he says. “That’s the motivation. They’re trying to get money the quickest way they can to get their fix. They’re not the criminals, and they’re finally being seen as the victims they are. Helping the victim is the end goal of everything we do.”

Brenda says her relationship with Camden’s law enforcement agencies is integral to the success of She Has A Name.

“We’ve made inroads that help get the bad guys, but at the end of the day it’s about these women. The fact that they’re considered victims is so important,” she says. “We’re never going to fix Camden with handcuffs and guns.”

Sgt. Elizer Agron of the Metro Police says his job is made easier because of Brenda’s work.

“I’ve seen Brenda embrace these women, no matter how dirty they look or how badly they smell,” Agron says. “She’ll just walk right up to them and wrap them in a hug. She gives herself totally to these women, and we’re all better for it.”

Jones sees She Has A Name, and the building that houses it, as the beacon of a new life for the women who walk through its front door.

“Brenda, her ministry, that team and that house being there – that’s hope,” Jones says. “Because a woman on the street, out there where I used to be, can say, ‘When I’m ready, when I’m done living this life, I can go there and she will help me. She will never give up on me.’ That’s hope.”

February 2015
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