At 16, Taz (not her real name) looks like the likeable, bright teenager she is—a little shy, but smart and well-spoken. It’s hard to reconcile the Taz of today with the 14-year-old who spent two years on the streets in New York, the property of a violent pimp who carved his name on her back. Taz ran away from her Brooklyn home when she was 14, and credits Gateways, a JCCA residential program on the Westchester Campus for girls who have been trafficked, with saving her life.
I left home when I was 14. I guess I just felt like running the streets. I had some friends out there and I didn’t really think about how I’d take care of myself. I figured it would just work out. A friend set me up on some call dates—that’s when you call a man and he pays you to come to his house. You don’t know who the person is until you get there. I did it for a while, but wound up meeting another friend who had a pimp. We were walking on the street behind these guys and she said ‘this is my daddy and this is his bro and he wants you to be on the blade.’ I didn’t even know what that meant. Now I do—it means you work the streets.
I stayed with him for nine months. I was on the street but he also sent me out on Craigslist and Backpage. He told us what we had to earn every day; if we didn’t do it, he’d beat us. Once when I tried to call 911, he hit me over the head with a glass bottle. He threatened to kill me if I ever tried to leave.
I learned the first question you ask a guy is ‘are you a cop or are you a pimp?.’ If they answer too slow, you know they’re lying. I can’t say I didn’t have opportunities to leave, but I didn’t choose to do that. I felt I loved him, and he loved me. I was wrong.
I finally got arrested by an undercover cop and sent to juvenile detention for four months. Then I was transferred to Gateways. I wanted to come here because I wanted to be with people who were like me and wouldn’t judge me.
I’ve been at Gateways for five months, and I felt comfortable the first minute I came here. I don’t have to explain anything—they all know. On the street you have a code for everything you do, and it’s hard to explain that to someone who hasn’t been there.
I’ll never forget that time in my life, but I know I can rebuild. The people at Gateways helped me realize that I do have the strength to make a life for myself, that I’m not just nothing. I’m starting to go home now every weekend and I’m back in touch with my family. I’m going to school and I know I can make it to college. Where do I see myself in 10 years? I’d like to be a pediatrician.”