We photographed Ericka when she was a sex worker. This is her life now | KUOW News and Information

We photographed Ericka when she was a sex worker. This is her life now

Jun 4, 2018

In 2015, photographer Mike Kane met Ericka, a sex worker on Aurora Avenue North in Seattle. Ericka was selling sex to support her heroin and meth addiction, and she was so weak she believed she could be dead within a year. She was estranged from her three young daughters and spent many nights on the street. 


We looked for Ericka recently, wondering how she was doing. What follows is her story, in her own words. 

My last 24 hours on Aurora, I play them over in my head a lot.

It was June 26, one of the longest days of the year, and I had been up for days. I was a mess. I turned a date and bought some dope. It was going to be my last fix, but somebody snatched it from me and squeezed it out in front of me. 

I was leaving this life because my daughter had asked me, begged me, not to get high on her 16th birthday. We hadn’t talked in three years, and when I called, that’s what she wanted.

I don’t remember that last trick. I think that’s part of the coping mechanism.

I do remember my first. I was 13. As my mom tells it, I went from playing with Barbies to being on Aurora. There were still Barbies on my bedroom floor when I left.

I was pimped out. I was an easy target; I had low self-esteem, and I didn’t have much value in myself.

Ericka, then 36, stands outside a motel on Aurora Avenue North in Seattle in 2015. The motel has since been torn down.
Credit KUOW Photo/Mike Kane
Notes in Isolde Raftery's notebook, from her interview with Ericka.
Credit KUOW/Isolde Raftery

Sex work for me was walking up and down Aurora, the smell of cheap restaurants and gasoline and city street. It was tired feet, because I was constantly walking. I never knew if I’d be picked up right away – I’ve walked miles before without being picked up. 

Once the money was made, it was straight to the dope man and getting high so I could face the rest of my day walking up and down Aurora.

My day started in the morning, at rush hour. I’d catch a date, score some dope. Around 3 p.m., I’d catch the guys coming home early. At night I worked from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., depending on how much I needed. It was usually five to seven guys a day, because I had a pretty large habit to support – about $250 a day.

Aurora changed a lot while I was there. 

The houses became more expensive, and our neighbors didn’t like us being there. I was spit on, literally. Egged. Teen boys leaned out car windows and called me names. The hardest for me were the mothers who yanked their children away from me. Because I’m a mother. They didn’t want their kids to look at me or come near me.

It was such a demeaning experience to be homeless in an area with a lot of money.

One of the hardest things was not being angry and bitter because their circumstances were better than mine. I wasn’t good at it all the time, but I tried.

In 2012, I met Lisa Etter-Carlson. The day had started out so bad I was ready to end everything. 

I was on my way to kill myself, and I happened to walk by this place called the Aurora Commons, which Lisa had founded. I had walked from 125th to 90th streets in the rain, a broken heel in my hand, and here comes this little white lady. She was cute, but she looked normy.

She told me I looked like I could use a cup of coffee. I said not really; I needed a pair of shoes. And she said maybe she could help with that too.

Ericka was one of 50 to 60 sex workers on Aurora when we met her in 2015. Ericka and others who keep tabs on the sex trade there believe the numbers have grown 300 percent.
Credit Mike Kane for KUOW
Notes from Isolde Raftery's notebook, referring to what men paid for blowjobs and sex on Aurora Avenue North in 2016.

We talked, and I felt in that conversation a moment of hope – enough that I obviously didn’t end everything then.

From that day on, I started stopping by the Commons to cook. That’s how I felt alive. As human beings, we have to create, and this was an important part of my day, or sometimes just my week, to escape what was going on, to create a mess – a beautiful mess, kind of the story of my life.

I've thought about how it happened, how I left Aurora, and it was a bunch of things. Because there’s no way, with our system, that I could have done it on my own. I couldn’t have called detox centers every day to see if there was a bed, with no phone and not even being aware enough of what time it was. Or having an ID to do these things. It took a lot of people to help me through that.

My sister was a huge part of it. I remember being raped, and walking down on Aurora, scared, angry and hurt, and my sister driving by me and picking me up. I hadn’t seen her in three years. She drove me to the Commons. She showed me she hadn’t given up on me.

My sister lived close. Every business and every homeless person on Aurora has her business card, because she would drive up and down Aurora handing them out. She got motel rooms for me, drove me to detox, just constantly letting me know that I was not forgotten.

And of course, there was my daughter, who asked me not to get high on her birthday.

I've been clean for two years. There’s still hurt, but I don’t name myself hurt. I name myself strong. Hopeful. A mother. A friend. A sister. Kind. A survivor. Eh, more like warrior. I’m too strong to be a survivor. Too outspoken, maybe. Bold. Honest. A creator.

Ericka talks with a friend at Aurora Commons, a homeless resource center on Aurora Avenue North, in Seattle. Ericka often used the services at Aurora Commons when she was living on the streets. Now she volunteers there.
Credit Mike Kane for KUOW
Notes from Isolde Raftery's interview with Ericka, May 2018. 'Even when I was on drugs, it bothered me when married men brought me into their homes. I’d always leave a little something behind for him to get caught – a condom wrapper in her bathroom cabinet. Those were always the ones you had to fight to keep the condom on.'

I want to do so many things. That’s part of what happens when you’ve missed out on so much. I’m just learning how to grow up at 38.

I want to help people. Right now that looks like cooking at a men’s shelter and spreading hope on Aurora. I’ll probably do something in social justice, whether that means going back to school or being a peer mentor.

Although my story is of hope on Aurora, it’s been hard to check in with my old life. Since I left, eight people I know have died of drug overdoses. I had to step back a bit, to slow down.

Men are still a huge trigger for me, because I was so young when I started in prostitution. I’m creating space for a healthy relationship.

But I get to be there for my mom and her wife, who are raising my three daughters. And I get to be there for my girls. We're figuring it out, little by little. 

This essay pulls from two interviews, one with Isolde Raftery and another with Lisa Etter-Carlson, founder of the Aurora Commons, and a panel presentation that featured Ericka.