The Genesis story captures the imaginations of readers both for the magnitude of the task and the power of the Creator. We are in awe of God who transforms a barren void into teeming life. For women prostitutes on the streets of Chicago, that power is manifest in the mission and vision of Genesis House, a place of hospitality, support, education, and hope.
If you were on the streets, living for the next fix, recovering from the last trick, fearful of violence from your pimp or customer, wondering where to sleep or how you’ll feed your children, what would you need? No doubt you would need many things. Certainly you would need some space.
Genesis House seeks to provide that space by creating a place for women. The mission is to provide an environment where women can make choices regarding their lifestyle and have access to the support services necessary to enable them to leave prostitution. A primary commitment of all who work there is not to judge.
"It’s all about hope and it’s all about choices," says Jean D. Lachowicz, executive director. "Resurrection happens here every single day."
For those who live in the house long term, who seek shelter in a time of crisis, or who participate in hospitality programs including counseling, peer support, and GED (high school equivalency) and job training, the message from Genesis House is that you can reconstruct your life. Since it was founded in 1984 by British Catholic lay missionary Edwina Gateley, Genesis House has been a place to begin again.
Here it matters if you’re alive, it matters if you’re sober, it matters if you have taken steps to get out of prostitution. In fact, Genesis House considers a woman to be successful every time she opts for a self-constructive lifestyle. The program goal is to support and guide a woman through this decision-making process.
GENESIS HOUSE has reached out to more than 20,000 prostitutes on the streets, in the courts, and in the county jail. Through extensive HIV education, thousands are reached each year. The educators are often former prostitutes and consequently they are familiar with the streets and know many of the women involved in prostitution. Perhaps the most important aspect of the outreach work is that whether women take steps to come to Genesis House or not, they know it is there. Having a choice is the first step to being empowered.
"The Genesis House outreach workers are my only touchstone of sanity in an otherwise insane world," says a woman who is still involved in prostitution. "I knew these girls when we worked together, and now they are on the other side helping someone like me who is still in the trap. They give me hope."
The trap of prostitution is filled with dead-ends of economic and emotional dependence, low self-esteem, little legal protection from rape and abuse, and limited employment opportunities. Women come to Genesis House from all racial, social, educational, and economic backgrounds. Many left home as teen-agers to escape an abusive situation. Most have been involved in prostitution for more than five years and have an arrest record and a substance addiction. Recovery from prostitution cannot happen in isolation, and it takes a long time.
Genesis House is family for the women it reaches. The four or five women who live in the house and more than 300 other non-residents the ministry works with have access to a full curriculum of personal development. They also have access to women who will listen and understand. Of the current 21-member staff, many have been involved in prostitution at some point in their lives and 25 percent are Genesis House graduates, having completed the intensive program and lived and worked independently. Their approach to healing is holistic and considers issues ranging from personal finance to spirituality, from nutritional cooking to healing sexually. The recovery program promotes activities that encourage personal creativity and nurture the soul.
"Faith plays a huge role in Genesis House and underlies everything we do," Lachowicz says. "The women need to find that light that has been dimmed in them over years of degradation. They need faith to believe that it is still there, and they need faith to believe that we are there....We don’t have a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy."
The work of Genesis House has recently expanded to the severely underserved west side of Chicago, and there are plans to establish "alumnae" support programs including secondary and transitional housing. Also, others are looking at Genesis House as a model that might be replicated elsewhere.