They are close friends — both 17-year-old girls, both juniors at Oak Park and River Forest High School, both of their lives nearly wrecked by homelessness, sexual abuse, drugs and broken homes in downstate Illinois that they both fled last year before finding a refuge called Anne’s House in Chicago.

Now, with the sudden news that Anne’s House will be closing by Jan. 31, both girls are scrambling to find alternative means of shelter, because they’re afraid of what might happen if, once again, they’re left to fend for themselves.

Anne’s House is part of the Salvation Army’s PROMISE program, which supports women and girls who have been affected by prostitution and sex trafficking.

The people at Anne’s House provided the girls with a place to live, social workers who the two teenagers said had become like surrogate mothers, medical insurance and a high school to attend. The girls said that Anne’s House would have also helped enroll them in college and pay some of the tuition.

The girls and at least one employee at Anne’s House said that the news about the center’s closing came abruptly and had to do with the loss of funding.

Anthony Clark, who teaches both girls at OPRF and is the founder of the nonprofit Suburban Unity Alliance, said that he, SUA and Oak Park Progressive Women of Color have established a GoFundMe account (www.gofundme.com/helping-survivors-succeed) seeking to raise $10,000 for the girls’ living expenses and to help fund whatever transition they might have to make in the near future.

Clark said they’re also seeking information on resources the girls can take advantage of. He said that the groups are working to “identify some opportunities and options that will allow them to stay together.

“They’re two of my favorite students and I care about them,” Clark said. “They care about OPRF, they found a place to feel safe and I feel like they’ve been flourishing at the school.”

Lately, however, the girls said that they’ve barely been able to focus on their schoolwork.

“It’s stressful to go to school and to get out of bed in the morning thinking, ‘Another day has gone by, we’re running out of time,'” Frances said. “I don’t even do my work, because I’m looking up places to go.”

For Clark, the girls’ situation is as much a test for the residents of their adopted community as it is for them.

“We always talk about building bridges and ending various forms of oppression and how progressive we are,” Clark said.

“This is one of those opportunities to truly show and prove that, and to truly act on those values we hold dear, because this is about everything we say we represent as a community,” he added. “I’m challenging the community to step up, build that bridge and help these young women.”

In an email statement released last week in response to Wednesday Journal inquiries about the pending closure, Shanna Schwarze, the director of communications for the Salvation Army Metropolitan Division, said that Anne’s House would be merged into another program.

“In a strategic move to align and consolidate all anti-human trafficking efforts (including combating the commercial sexual exploitation of children), the Salvation Metropolitan Division’s Promise and Anne’s House will be absorbed into our STOP-IT program at the end of the month,” Schwarze wrote. 

“STOP-IT not only provides comprehensive, wrap-around services for survivors of all types of trafficking,” she added, “the program also delivers outreach, training, education and multi-disciplinary coalition building around human trafficking in Chicago and beyond.”

 The statement, however, was not much consolation for Mary and Frances (the names of both girls have been changed to protect their identities), who said that they and employees of Anne’s House, who were prohibited from speaking publicly about the closure, were told that the program would be shuttered by the end of the month.

Twisted odysseys

“I’m afraid I’ll go back to what I used to do and who I used to be to survive,” said Mary during an interview last week.

“I’ve never had a real job before, but I know how to hustle and get what I need. I could’ve been dead. I’ve lost too many people. I need to get out of the game and out of my situation.”

Mary said she was kicked out of her mother’s house in Minnesota when she was 11 years old, prompting her to move in with her bipolar grandmother in Carbondale.

“She would beat me,” she said. “I have depression really bad, and it kind of broke me down. I got into drugs and started hanging with the wrong people and started doing some horrible stuff.”

When she was younger, Frances, her mother and her brother cycled “in and out of homeless shelters.” Her father “was on and off with us, but wasn’t really there.”

“At one point, I ended up staying with my uncle and aunt, and they were sexually abusing me for a whole year,” Frances said. “When I came home, I was about 8. I was finally able to regularly see my dad while we were living in [Murphysboro, a small town near Carbondale]. He was an alcoholic and would beat up my mother all the time.”

Her father, Frances said, would also beat her and her brother “with belts and metal rods.” Sometimes, the beatings were so bad that her skin peeled and bled.

“When I got into middle school, it was cool for a little while, but then it got worse,” she said.

One day, Frances got caught stealing. She went to jail and returned home to her father’s wrath.

“He beat me to where I couldn’t walk,” she said.

Mary and Frances, who met while at an alternative school in Carbondale, would grow to trust and confide in each other.

“She told me not to be scared anymore,” Frances said of Mary. “We were getting tired of getting abused and so [Mary] found Anne’s House. She said it was out in Chicago.” 

One day last year, the last straw came for Frances. Her father was beating her mother.

“She was screaming,” Frances recalled. “He was on the floor trying to choke her to death. I called the police. The police came, but my mom was upset with me because I called them. I told my dad I didn’t and he started beating me. He punched me in the face, tried to take my phone, locked me in my room.”

Frances said she managed to escape her room and run to a nearby police station, but that the police “didn’t do nothing.” Her father kicked her out shortly after she went to the police, she said.

“I grabbed the majority of my things and was staying at my friend’s house,” she said. “His mother was a crack addict who was trying to sell me to people just so I could stay there. Then I started staying with another close friend who tried doing the same thing and had sexually touched me.”

Frances said that by the time she talked with Mary last year about possibly moving to Chicago to live at Anne’s House, she was sleeping on park benches. By October, both of the girls had obtained permission from parents and authorities to get on a train bound for Chicago.

“I think it’s amazing to hear all of that and know that they’re still beautiful young women who are academically successful and, despite people taking advantage of their trust and using and abusing them, they still have love in their hearts,” said Clark.

“This was our way out of everything,” Mary said of Anne’s House, adding that the place was her main pathway to one of her life’s great desires. “I just want to be known as responsible.”

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com  

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