Denver Street's Hope

LeAnne Downing: Founder of Street’s Hope wrote the blog for this month… Street’s Hope the Beginning

Sometimes life knocks us off our feet and grinds us hard into the ground, we feel our teeth rattle and our soul shake, then God comes sweeping down with a tremendous rescue. At other times we are whirling with confusion and pain and it seems as if God doesn’t show up at all. But there are still other times we find ourselves standing on hallowed ground, where life’s black darkness meets with the gold of hope and possibility, weaving together, dark and light, and becoming beautiful, and holy, the type of beauty and holiness that can only be had when life has been brutally lived but God is present. You may know what I mean.

Street’s Hope is that hallowed ground for so very many women, but it never would have happened if God had not made it so. I am here to tell you, and I know. I am LeAnne Downing, founder of Street’s Hope.

Long before our doors opened the Spirit was moving. Back then all I knew of sex workers I had learned from Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, but I knew this also, that one dark night in 1997 I had seen some women working the street and I vowed if I ever got the chance to help them I would, because they were beautiful and didn’t know it, precious to God and didn’t have a clue.

Five years later a plan took shape; I was going to bake chocolate chip cookies and go hand them out to the working girls on Friday nights, building relationships so that they could call on me if they needed help. How very much I had to learn; they weren’t like Julia Roberts at all. So I found mentors in the organization A Way Out in Memphis, whose director Carol Wiley trained me and police officer Mark Leonie who showed me the ropes on the streets. He told me the girls always walk in the direction against traffic, trying to catch a drivers eye. If the driver swings back around the block and waits, she walks up to his car and makes a deal. Mark and I sat in his car and watched this. If the girl got in the guys car we waited, and if fifteen minutes later she was dropped back off that was proof enough for me try to talk to her. When the women saw me coming though, every single time, they bolted like scared rabbits. Mark laughed and said it would never work and I began to believe him the night I corned a girl in a Seven Eleven and she nearly knocked over the stand of chips sprinting for the door. Maybe they thought I was going to beat them over the head with a great big bible, or maybe that was I a jealous wife. Whatever it was, they wanted nothing to do with me. My nights of attempting first contact were one big joke. There must be a better way.

Then, I had a brilliant idea.

The next night I put on an over-sized flannel shirt and stuffed my long brown hair under a baseball cap, got into my jeep and, looking like a man, I went for a ride. Not just any ride, mind you, but I drove down the blocks slowly, looking for eye contact. When I got it I swung back around the block and then I waited. Sure enough, it worked. The women, thinking I was a guy, walked up to my car to strike a deal.

But, now came the tricky part, I had maybe a second before they would realize I wasn’t a man at all and would dash. How was I going to use that important second? I racked my brain and settled on a word, one precious loving word that was nestled in my heart from my southern childhood. It was “Honey,” as in “Honey can I get you anything?” Or “Honey would you like some more sweet tea?” Or as in “I love you Honey.” It was word that held no judgment, but it cared and was kind, maybe even meant love. Every single woman that, after I said “Honey?” stopped to listen. Then I’d give them a Street’s Hope card and say, “If you ever need any help let me know.” And then I’d drive away. That’s it. Two nights were all I needed. Diane called at 4am my first night out and the ball began to roll, women wanting, needing, help. We launched. Soon, because of our growing needs, we took on staff and volunteers and a whole community joined us to help them.

Close to a year after that first jeep ride Street’s Hope was booming but I was dying. I’d climb into bed each night chanting something like, “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God! I can’t do this job, I’m not good enough, I’m not tough enough, I’m not enough.” And God, I’d hear Him laughing. So, being a little miffed at that, I’d have corporate meetings every morning that included God as the CEO sitting across the table from me. I’d write down all Street’s Hope’s needs and troubles and woes and slide them all right across the table to where God was sitting, so He could just do something about it. Because, our problems weren’t the teeny tiny sort one rings their hands over, they were gargantuan whale size problems that needed a big God sized rescue. Like Michelle whose tiny toes had been separated by adults she loved and injected with drugs when she was three. Or Melissa living in her car with her two beautiful little girls, or plump sixty year-old Bobby who was being pimped out by her kids for drug money. There was Lauri who had her social security number tattooed on her leg so someone would know who she was when she died, and there was Megan, spit-fired and holy rollin. Megan began reinventing herself the day she picked up a bible and read it from cover to cover in prison. But, when she got out, she had no where to go except back to her old friends, her old life, her old ways. All was the same except for one thing, now Megan loved Jesus. So she smoked crack with her friends but read them the bible while she was at it. Yeah, no. That went over like a led balloon. When men picked her up for sex and she talked about Jesus, they kicked her out of the car saying something like they weren’t paying for someone to save their souls. By the time she called me she said she couldn’t come off the street by herself. She became our receptionist.

All these things I talked to God about during our CEO meeting but on this day, this particular Monday, I remember not talking much at all. I was waiting, waiting, just waiting to see if we would get the house. Getting the house was important because finding the women a place to live had become a big problem. It seemed like a lucky break when we found this lovely ten-bedroom home, already set for a group home and soon up for auction. Bidding on it low, we were trying to beat the odds, we knew. But win or lose, that day we would hear. I remember just sitting and waiting, and waiting, making tea, pacing, waiting. Finally the call came and Jill the realtor, with great pomp and circumstance, announced we were the proud new owners of a lovely big house! Joy and celebration! Beliefs in miracles! Happy phone calls all around! But when the excitement died down, other realities crashed into the party. Like, I’d have to find a housemother and furniture for that great big house. I hadn’t thought of that and we sure didn’t have the budget for it. My CEO meeting with God obviously wasn’t over. I picked up a pen, wrote down all the new worries, slid it over to God and looked expectantly at His blank chair. The phone rang again. It was a pastor friend, Jean from New Orleans and he saying something like, Hey LeAnne, I know this fantastic woman who wants to come to Denver. Do you have any positions open? And that’s how we got our brilliant red-headed Josie, our first house mother, and by the next day her friends had given her $10,000 to do it. I was stunned. House? Check! Housemother? Check! Then I sat back in my chair thinking about the furniture I needed. “Well, God, since we are on a roll…” and, I kid you not, the phone rang again. It was Megan saying Embassy Suites Downtown was going out of business and GIVING away furniture to non-profits, and that she was holding a couch for us and I needed to come get it. When I got there I found Megan, cradling her tiny baby, sitting on a couch and daring anyone else to take it. But, that couch was in the middle of a room with fifty other couches, and that room was in the middle of a thirteen story hotel full of furniture, and we could take anything we wanted! We called board members, rented a huge truck and hired homeless men for extra hands. Together we filled up the truck with enough furniture for that whole ten-bedroom house!

We got the house, the housemother and the furniture all on the same day! I call it Miracle Monday, the wildest day of my life. Thank you God.

A few months later the beautiful home opened for it’s first residents. It sits on a hill with bright white siding and a picket fence. It has flowers. You know if you’ve seen it.

Having faith when big things are riding on it, when a lot is at stake, is always terrifying. I always feel like I’m on the edge of a gigantic precipice, Grand Canyon size only bigger, and I’m tipping, tipping, tipping over the edge. I will surely splat on the rocks below because I am falling. Faith is the Fall, it’s taking the fall and thinking you might crash, but doing it anyway. Amazingly God never let us at Street’s Hope fall to the rocks below. We were plummeting what felt like a million times, trying to pay bills and raise the proper money for girls that had no other way out. But God was there, God IS there, weaving gold into black, redeeming, changing, making things beautiful, making them holy. I am changed because of it. My world is changed. And this story, it still makes me cry.

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