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Prostitutes' guardian angel 'She's is the best thing to God, right here'

A white minivan pulled up in front of a brick house on Ninth Street. The front lawn was damp and muddy from rain and bore the weight of two abandoned grocery carts that flanked the staircase.

Joanne Lorenzo -- petite with rosy cheeks and dark hair -- got out of her van, carrying boxes of clothing and bags of toiletries.

"I hope they're here," she said as she approached the front door.

She climbed a long staircase to a second-floor apartment, home of two friends, Beth VanNess and June Pollock.

Pollock, 46, is a prostitute; VanNess, 47, a former prostitute.

Lorenzo hopes to soon open a coffeehouse for prostitutes and others in need. Meanwhile, on many nights, she tours the underbelly of Niagara Falls and Buffalo, searching out prostitutes and giving them sandwiches, clothing and bags of toiletries.

It's all in an attempt to help change their lives.

"Everybody on the street is so nice," Lorenzo said. "They say, 'Can you pray for me?' It's amazing. So it's really not scary at all. God is with us, so whatever."

VanNess remembers "walking" one night when Lorenzo drove by.

"What are you doing out there? You know you can get hurt," Lorenzo yelled to her.

VanNess said she stopped street walking afterward and now helps Lorenzo with her mission.

"That's what gets me in trouble with the police department," VanNess said. "They all consider you as a madam. . . . These girls don't give me no money. I give to them."

VanNess pointed to boxes of clothes in the apartment. When she doesn't have enough supplies to help the girls, she said, she turns to Lorenzo.

"She's is the best thing to God, right here," VanNess said.

>Help needed

Lorenzo is director of the Community Kitchen, at 1406 Falls St.

She has been visiting the homes of prostitutes and sites where they congregate every weekend for about 10 years.

Several months ago, she started calling this mission the Magdalene Project, based on a similar effort in Texas that encourages Christians to be charitable toward prostitutes on Easter.

Lorenzo hopes to soon open a late-night coffeehouse for women who need a safe place to receive food, clothing, toiletries and other things they need. She is looking at a site on 19th Street but needs donations to fund the $300 monthly rent. She hopes to have the coffeehouse open in late May or early June.

"It needs a furnace," she said, "and the hot water tank needs fixing."

She said she hopes the coffeehouse would be a stepping stone for women who want to get off the streets and find help.

"It would be perfect for them to come in and get some toiletries, clothes or whatever they need. It seems like a lot happens when you have food and rest a little bit," she said.

Lorenzo said her past involved a relationship where gambling and drinking became problematic.

"I was very co-dependent and very dependent," she said. "I couldn't help myself out of it."

So she started praying. She said she was led to New York City, where she found a street ministry and decided to give her life to Christ.

"Ever since then, He's always been there for me," she said. "I was in a bad circumstance. I always run into [the prostitutes], and there's a bond. I think that's why [Christ] gave me those circumstances."

>Hard choices

Those circumstances led her to Tracy Goldsmith, a 32-year-old woman, thin and bundled in winter clothes, last Christmas Eve.

Goldsmith was searching for a "date" on Broadway in Buffalo. Lorenzo pulled her van to the curb to talk with her through the unrolled window.

"I'm waiting on somebody to come and get me," Goldsmith told Lorenzo.

"Give me your hand, honey, [and] we'll pray for you right now," Lorenzo replied. "We'll be praying for you, honey, and that you'll be safe."

Goldsmith said she has been street walking for about five years. She was almost in tears after the prayer.

"You got to do what you got to do," she said. "I ain't got no job. I ain't got no family for Christmas and all. I got to go out here and get what I can get. Catch a date or something like that. I thank God I'm still here."

When it comes to leaving the lifestyle of prostitution and drugs, it comes down to people, places and things, Lorenzo said.

"You have to change all your friends," she said. "It's hard because your emotions are all tangled up in it. I think it's a choice. They have to desire to get out of their situation. Then they have to make a choice to leave the lifestyle and don't hang around the people who are using."

Prostitution-related charges have fluctuated since 2004.

There were 69 prostitution-related charges in 2004 in Niagara Falls, according to the city Police Department's narcotics unit. There were 35 charges during the following two years.

The number of calls for prostitution-related problems was 80 in 2004; 72 in 2005; and 108 last year.

Kelly J. Rizzo, deputy commander of the Narcotics Intelligence Division, said changes in the rates are due to factors that include the loss of manpower, the time officers are allowed to spend on the issue and changes in the sex industry, which has largely moved indoors.

"It's almost like a one-stop shopping kind of thing," Rizzo said, adding that most of the women charged are either on drugs or in a location where there is access to drugs.

"You point an arrow to a crack house, you can point an arrow to where the prostitutes are," said Karl Brusino, a Niagara Falls Police Department intelligence officer.

One night, Brusino pulled Lorenzo over while she was driving around talking to prostitutes.

"Initially, we thought she was up to something," he said. "You see cars cruising around in some big crime areas and going up to the girls. She really gives a lot of herself without a lot of help."

Lorenzo aims to keep showing up in the darkest of places, including that upper flat on Ninth Street.

>'I'm not proud'

VanNess, one of the tenants there, said she has no regrets about her former profession. She did it to support her kids while she was living as a single mom.

Pollock feels differently.

"I do what I do, but I'm not proud," she said. "I do it for my [drug] habit. Honey, I don't like it. One of these days, it's going to kill me."

Pollock is a petite, skeletal woman with gray eyes; her black hair smells of pomade. She doesn't say how long she has been walking the streets, but she knows she had a semblance of what some would consider a normal, stable life, raising four children with her former husband.

Then one day, after 22 years of marriage, it all unraveled with a drag from a marijuana joint -- with little white rocks of crack cocaine wrapped inside, for that extra high.

"I'll tell you, it's not that easy to say no," Pollock said. "I remember years ago when me and my husband were together, I would have never dreamed that I would do anything like that. I would have never dreamed that I was going to walk the streets."

Pollock, who has emphysema, was clean for about nine months a few years ago, then returned to cocaine.

"I felt better [clean], I really did," she said. "I was talking to my mother on the phone and she'd send me money in the rehab [program]. Now, my mother don't send me nothing, and I don't blame her. That stuff is like the devil; it clings to you. You've got to keep strong, you know."

Pollock vows again one day to get clean.

Meanwhile, Lorenzo will pray for her and push ahead with her mission.



>Help wanted

The Magdalene Project accepts donations of food, clothing and toiletries, as well as financial contributions.

To donate financially, checks should be made payable to the Magdalene Project and mailed to MPO Box 626, Niagara Falls, NY 14302.

Call 282-0908 to make arrangements for other donations.

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