SHEILA HOUSTON WAS 16 YEARS old when she began working as a prostitute. She was newly married with a baby, and her pimp was her husband. “If you really love me, this is what you’d do for us to make it,” he told her. His request didn’t seem right, but she did it anyway because she thought she loved him. And even though she took the baby and ran not long after, she spent 11 years in what she now calls “the life.” Years later, instead of burying her past, she shares it freely with the young sex workers she counsels as the director of outreach services for New Horizons Ministry. She hasn’t left the streets, but she has left the life.

• • • • •

First of all, I was raised in a family of 14. I enjoyed being in a big family, but my father had already disappeared many years before that. Every once in a while when he did come around, he was a person who promised you something but never came through. So as a teenager I was always looking for that love that I never found from my father.

The track—that’s where girls walk the streets to sell their bodies—it was by my house where I grew up. I worked the streets in that area late at night, but none of my brothers or sisters or mother ever knew. I wasn’t even worried that they would see me. I don’t know, maybe in the back of my mind I wished they’d see me.

I can’t remember the man’s face. But he picked me up, took me to this apartment building, and then he pulled a gun and raped me. Then he dropped me back off where he found me. I told my husband-slash-pimp, and he gave me a butter knife and told me, “Okay, now go back out there.” From that night on, that’s when I began to realize that there was something wrong within this relationship. So anyway.

You have to remember, by then I had a son by him. And I was raised in a family where my father wasn’t there, so of course I wanted to make sure that we stayed together as a family.

I’ve been married to the right person for 20 years. My husband knows my background. He knows my story. He’s sat in audiences when I speak. So it’s okay. I don’t live in that shame anymore.

One day I had my kids and I saw this young girl, looked like maybe she was 14. She was standing outside, and I said to myself, She’s working. I told my older son to take the kids in the house, and I walked across the street to her and I said, “You know, if you ever need someone, you can knock on my door.” A couple days later, she did. You want to ask me what time she knocked on my door? Three in the morning. So I got up and I fed her. And then I let her lay down and go to sleep. The next morning I let her shower, and then I read her a Bible story. I never saw the girl again, but it was something that was in my heart to do for her, because I understood. And I needed her to know that somebody knew and somebody cared.

I don’t save anyone.

Some people—not all—say we should just snatch these girls out of the life and rescue them. Who are we to snatch anybody out of anything? First of all, let’s see what’s the issue and let’s help them make the decision to come out of the life. You don’t take everything away from a human being.

The first thing you do is listen. A lot of people like to talk at these girls instead of listening to them. But they’re happy when someone just listens to them. Because everyone takes advantage of them already. It’s about taking the time to get to know them and to find out what their needs are. It’s about walking alongside them. And you can’t walk alongside anyone if you don’t know where they want to go.

Change is a process. I’m working with a girl who’s out of the life, and she recently told me, “It seems like everything I do, I go backward financially.” And I told her, “You know what? You’re just living in the real world.” If I didn’t tell her, she might have thought, Well, maybe I’ll just go make more money on the street.

In the last few years I bought a BMW just so when the girls see me they know that you don’t have to sell your body to have something like that. You can have that because you work. You can have that because you’re using your gifts and talents.

Success is getting to see a girl again. That means she didn’t die.