Northside Women's Space came from the vision of a pastor and a researcher.
As the women would pass the steps of her north Minneapolis church, Alika Galloway would bid them good morning, offer a drink of water, some words of grace.
In those daily interactions, Galloway learned that some of them were trading sex for money to cover rent, diapers, field trips for their children.
"That's part of what kept me up at night," said Galloway. "What would it feel like to have nothing else except my body? That's what makes my stomach hurt."
At the same time, University of Minnesota research associate Lauren Martin was gathering data about women in the sex trade and listening to their stories. Eventually, Galloway and Martin met, and together they envisioned a way to help the women whose lives haunted them.
Starting this week, Kwanzaa Community Church, where Galloway is co-pastor with her husband, is giving over use of its 100-year-old building to women and girls involved in prostitution. The building, at 2100 Emerson Av. N., is envisioned as a place to rest and reflect, have a meal, shower and perhaps make connections to a healthier lifestyle. The congregation relocated last fall.
An open house from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday will celebrate the start of programming at the site, just a block off the West Broadway strip.
With the opening of the haven, clients will enter the Northside Women's Space, as it is now called, through the front doors. They'll pass a banner that's been on display since 2002 that reads, "May our hearts be large enough to shelter the wanderers."
They'll climb a stairway to an airy loft, filled with gently diffused light from a huge Gothic-paned window. They'll find sofas, a workspace, a stocked kitchenette, computers, a staff member ready to listen to their stories and offer help.
Portrait of the sex trade
Martin, who conducted her research from 2005 to 2007 with support from the university’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, recalled that when she was interviewing women, she was struck by their parting words.
"The women thanked me for welcoming them and providing them with a comfortable and warm place for them to sit and talk," she said. "They said, 'I don't have a safe place to think, and nobody wants to hear what I think.'"
Her findings painted a chilling picture of the sex trade on the North Side:
• Although the women she spoke with averaged 37 years old, about half said they'd first traded sex before they turned 18. Among those people, the average age of first transaction was 13.
• 76 percent had children, but only 17 percent of those women saw their children daily.
• 84 percent said they had experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse; 56 percent had experienced all three.
• 90 percent were unemployed, 64 percent requested help getting food, and more than two-thirds said they lacked stable housing.
The recent economic crisis is likely to have made conditions worse, Galloway said. "The demand is still there," she said. "They just get paid less."
By chance, in 2007, Galloway saw Martin's research on a poster at the University of Minnesota, and was determined to meet her. When they finally did get together and realized they were troubled by the same issue, they wept with relief and hope.
"Sometimes there is this human-divine moment, when you know a power greater than your own has intervened," Galloway said.
As they spoke, the solution became clear. The building Kwanzaa has occupied since 1998 is one block from the intersection of Broadway and Emerson Avenues N., one of the city's busiest prostitution spots. There already were plans to move the burgeoning congregation to a larger building at 3700 Bryant Av. N. Those plans were speeded up. A variety of partners have been lined up -- eight other faith communities, service providers Breaking Free and Pride, and other community-based groups -- to provide funding, expertise and support.
Donations of cash, labor and supplies have reached about $100,000, although Martin and Galloway will continue to raise money for operations.
Tuesday's grand opening is only a start. Eventually, they imagine that the whole building, including the sanctuary, a kitchen and classroom spaces will be part of the haven.
But first, Galloway said, they're working on selling the church's pews and stained-glass windows, a fundraising concept she resisted until a member, John Ivers, corrected her.
"He said Jesus would rather walk among those women than be stuck on a window," she said.
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409