Four years ago, Nancy Jackson founded Night Moves to provide health services for sex workers in Chicago. "Everybody's got to have somebody that's looking after their interests and trying to look after them," she says. Photo by Ronnie Wachter.

In Chicago neighborhoods considered “high stroll” areas for prostitution, a full-size Winnebago is parked on the corner four nights a week. Inside, there are prostitutes, but no illicit sexual activity takes place.

This camper is more than just a camper; it could be called a traveling clinic. There is free HIV testing. There are videos created by the Chicago Department of Public Health on syphilis and other diseases. There is a display counter with pamphlets. They even serve coffee and soup.

This is the Night Moves camper, designed to reach Chicago sex workers. It is the brainchild of Nancy Jackson, executive director of Prologue, a nonprofit providing educational services. Her agency serves as the hub of Night Moves with many of its staff volunteering on the camper.

“[We’re] trying to work with the folks who need us most out there, who are operating in the shadows,” says Jackson, a former teacher from Detroit who moved to Chicago 20 years ago to attend law school but stayed in education. “[We have] been very committed to public health in general, serving very underserved populations.”

The camper parks in one of 11 “high stroll” areas on every Thursday through Sunday from midnight to 6 a.m., when most sex workers are awake and visible on the streets. On any given night, there are at least three staffers–”a driver, as well as one on the camper and another on the street.

Paris Willis, a transgendered former prostitute turned Night Moves volunteer, first entered the camper in 2006. “I went on the camper, and [it] looked so homey, you could be so comfortable in there. It kind of makes you start thinking about what your life can be like,” Willis says. “All I can do is help somebody with my story. What prostitutes need is somebody to understand. They don’t need anybody to preach to them.”

Jackson, who conceived of the idea for Night Moves four years ago in response to a request for proposal from the health department, never finished law school. Coming from a long line of teachers, education is in her blood. She switched to an education curriculum before graduating and has now been at Prologue for almost 18 years.

Jackson sat down with The Chicago Reporter to discuss what she sees as the causes of prostitution, what can be done to prevent it and the two individuals who inspired her to reach out to sex workers.

Are the people you help receptive when you approach them?

They are very receptive. They’re used to seeing us now. They have been seeing us for years out there on the streets. They know our staff people. They know the camper when they see it coming. It’s not decorated on the outside, but they know our camper. Occasionally, we may fly different banners that say the name of the program.

What do you actually say to them when you first approach them?

Would you like to have some information about HIV and AIDS? Would you like or need to use or have a safe sex kit? Would you like to come and have a cup of coffee right down there in our camper? Then we can engage in some further conversation and get to know the person’s name or street name. It’s usually the street name. They might have a cup of coffee and start talking about what their life has been or what their daily routine is or how many evenings a week they’re out there. They might ask us how often we’re going to be there so they can connect with us the next time.

Does it usually take more than one meeting?

It takes a number of visits and a lot of hard knocks. Once you’ve gone through some scares, being assaulted, being raped, being arrested, having your money taken from you, having a –˜john’ run off without paying. Once enough of those sort of things pile up, people start thinking, –˜Maybe there is something better I can be doing with my life. Maybe I can find out some information from these people that will help me along.’ One of the things about being out on the street is that you stop thinking clearly and you start thinking in a very confused kind of way, and it just becomes a vicious cycle–”substance abuse, self medication–”walking around in a fog, and people can spend years in that fog.

Is it hard on the volunteers?

It’s a heavy commitment because the work is so emotionally challenging. You’ve really got to have the heart for it because people out on the street know when you’re not being for real with them. They know when people really don’t have the positive outlook and positive energy to give them. They’re around negative people and negative energy every day. So, they want to be encouraged. They want to be motivated. They want to hear ideas that will help them maybe think better of themselves and improve their lives.

Has it been dangerous for you or the volunteers?

We’ve had occasional run-ins, not so much with the johns but with some of the roughnecks trying to work some of the young women. Of course, they want to continue doing what they’re doing, in the shadows and unmolested, so to speak. If we see them out there, and they’re doing anything that crosses the line, then we’re going to pick up the phone, we’re going to say something to them until cops can get there.

You invite –˜johns’ onto the camper too. Why?

To a certain extent, everybody out there on the streets is victimized and has had a number of challenges that they are facing, and you’ve got to have an open mind and an open heart as you interact with people. Certainly, there are johns out there that are bad news, belligerent and all that other stuff, but there are some out there that are almost as deeply troubled as the client they might be soliciting and as deeply lonely and also not necessarily meaning to exploit but also being exploited themselves.

Have you been able to help any of them?

In fact, there is a gentleman we’ve had come around and speak to our groups of kids. He’s been a great positive motivator, especially with our young African-American males. He was a john and then he became a pimp himself and got incarcerated and then found God and stopped doing the bad things he was doing and stopped abusing substances and alcohol and has really turned things around.

What is the most common misconception about prostitutes?

That’s hard to say. I guess one of the most common misconceptions would be that the folks out there doing prostitution like what they’re doing. That’s probably the number one thing. At any given time, you’re having a knife put to your throat or a gun put to your head or a fist in your eye or teeth knocked out.

What do you think is the best preventive action to keep people from becoming sex workers?

What we have learned over the years is that, especially with the high-risk heterosexual young females, a lot of them are being exploited by their family members. They are not being exploited by some stranger on the street. You have a lot of small time roughneck kinds of guys who are really prostituting a lot of the younger girls–”and boys, for that matter. The kind of prevention that could take place, first of all, is that young people need to have stabilized housing. That is the number one reason that we’ve found linked to prostitution–”just not having a stable place to live.

You also have a lot of sex workers who’ve been turned on to drugs and as a result they’re trying to feed the drug habit and feed the housing habit that doesn’t ever really get satisfied. They go through periods of incarceration and then end up right back on the streets again because there are so few resources, especially [for] ex-offenders. Most of them have records related to their sexual work activity or homelessness, vagrancy, substance abuse or in the case of so many of the young men, a lot of them have gang and criminal records stemming from gang activity.

Why an interest in prostitutes?

Prologue is a mission-driven organization, and it’s very important to us that we work with young people that no one else wants to work with. Everybody’s got to have somebody that’s looking after their interests and trying to look after them. The sex-working community has been a community that has been in extreme amount of need, and because they operate in the shadows, it’s as if they don’t exist. That’s just not correct. They in fact are there. They are part of our neighborhood. They are part of our families. They are part of society. If we’re going to change things, we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and get in there together. That’s the mission-driven zeal [of the] Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis of Notre Dame [who] came out from their class in the early ’70s and changed the world. They have gone across the globe doing exceptional work, [and] two of them founded Prologue. We’ve continued our work in that spirit.