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Former Prostitute Returns To Streets With Solutions

Artisans' Guild Persona (Photo by Elizabeth Hamilton)
Artisans' Guild Persona (Photo by Elizabeth Hamilton)

Jennifer Smith was not afraid of the body.
She had seen several in her lifetime. She was afraid because she knew this would be her death — in a drug house, without the honor of a proper burial and no survivors to mourn her.

The dead woman looked like her. She too had been a crack addict with long blond hair and green eyes. When Smith's drug dealer found the hanging body, he cut it down and left it where it fell on the bed in the back room.

Twelve years ago, Smith was a prostitute and addict. Today at age 43, she is the women's director for the House of Hope, a halfway house in Gainesville located at 29 SE 21st St. 

Under Smith's direction, the house has outgrown its current location, which houses five women. She is now looking for a home that can house eleven.

Smith's Abusive Past

Smith was 11 when she began using drugs. At 12, she joined  Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, the Sid Martin Bridge House and other programs. Still, she could not quit.

By 31, she would stay awake as long as a week, looking for drugs on the streets before she crashed.

She also heard voices. Believing the voices were people, she chased them with knives through the woods behind her pimp Mark’s Gainesville home.

 “They’re coming for you, Jen!” the voices said.

She ran inside away from the terror. When she reached the closet door, her filthy fingers slid over the handle searching for the bolt. But even the locked door could not silence the voices.

In the closet, she begged God to kill her. She did not want to commit suicide like the crack addict she had found, but she thought suicide might be a peaceful death compared to her other options.

Driving around town today, Smith can point to locations where she has been raped or beaten. Most of the woods, hotels and apartments along South 13th Street silently keep her haunting secrets.

She thought Mark would kill her some day. Every time she hopped into a car with a customer, she feared a brutal death. Law enforcement was after her, too; she had three felony warrants out for her arrest.
“Finally. Now, I can do something with you,” a voice told her before she blacked out on Nov. 5, 2001.

This was the last voice she heard that day. She did not emerge from the closet until what she believes was two days later.

Finding Guidance Through Religion

Believing she had heard God, Smith decided to look for a place to worship.

When she entered the Family Churchthe following Sunday, her 84-pound, scarred body resembled the shrunken corpse of Bogie, her shorthaired, red chow dog who starved to death when she did not feed him. She needed to save her money for crack.

Smith said she was stunned when congregation member Patsy Cook greeted her warmly. Cook mentored her every week for a year, sometimes several times a week.

Smith read the entire Bible in three months and several more times during her first two years as a Christian.

Yet old demons continued to haunt her. Still emotionally attached to her pimp, she relied on him for food and returned home to him each day even though he belittled her and her religion.  

Over time, though, she learned to accept help from her new church family and eventually abandoned the abusive relationship. Fellow churchgoers helped her get an apartment, pay for food and find her first job at Home Depot.

Returning To The Streets For Redemption

Smith felt ready to head back to the streets — this time with a solution rather than a need.

She thought about bringing Christmas presents to the homeless and suggested it to her Christian friends. She expected them to take her idea and run with it, but she did not expect their response.

“If you lead, we will follow,” they told her.

During that first Christmas, the group collected more than 500 gifts under Smith's direction.

Roosevelt Anderson, a homeless man who Smith said used to hold her while she cried when she was still on the streets, said street people admire Jen because she understands more than anyone how life's wounds can feel.

Some of them know she is not “just another church lady” because they remember who she used to be. When they ask what happened and how she changed, she tells them “Jesus Christ.”

“It sounds so religious. It sounds hyper-religious. But it’s the truth,” Smith said.

Some believe her and follow in her steps, and their life stories begin to sound similar to the one she tells. Since then, the homeless ministries she started through The Family Church and through the Greenhouse Churchhave grown with the help of new leaders.

Judge Walter Green, who sentenced Smith to jail, said he knew her in the 1990s while she was still a prostitute and using drugs.

“You can never tell what’s going to happen to a person; anyone can change,” Green said. "The good thing about her is that so many people are benefiting from her transformation.”

Observing her work at the Bo Diddley Plaza and at the House of Hope, he said she is unrecognizable. Not only has her behavior changed drastically, but he said she appears physically healthier, too.

Instead of smelling like urine, weed and dirt, Smith’s hair smells like whatever brand of shampoo is donated to the House. She does not snoop through garbage cans behind fast-food restaurants for leftovers anymore. She splurges on shrimp sushi once a week.

If staring into the corpse's green eyes was any indication of her future, looking into the tear-filled eyes of the incarcerated women she now houses is like reliving her past. 

Tonya Goodrich left prison and joined the program two years ago. Smith spent another six months training Goodrich to become the home’s live-in supervisor after she graduated from the program.

Goodrich said she’s been clean from drugs and alcohol for seven years, five in prison and two out.

“Everyone has a different pattern. Mine was drugs and alcohol and drinking,” Goodrich said. “Jennifer encourages us to remain sober and not return to the same patterns and the same habits.”  
Forming A New Family

On February 28, Smith adopted her niece Shelby, 6, and nephew Tristan, 9.

At first, she often screamed at the children, but she's learned to discipline them quietly now.

When Tristan stole a piece of Play-Dough from his school’s art department, he was embarrassed and upset. Rather than yelling, Smith pulled him on her lap and held him. She told him never to take things again.

“I’m just the proud parent now,” Smith said. “I could talk about my kids all day.”

The children have stopped calling her Aunt Jen; she is just "Mom."

Elizabeth is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.