IN THE EARLY morning hours, Dee Dee Perry gets in her car and does "spiritual drive-bys" along International Boulevard in East Oakland.
She drives up and down the busy corridor known as the "track" looking to proselytize to prostitutes. That's exactly how Perry was saved nearly 20 years ago from her life on the streets: Church workers convinced her to give up prostitution and to kick her drug habit.
"I will pop a U-turn in the middle of the street," said Perry, 45. "I have to let them know that there is hope and they don't have to live like this."
Perry is a member of Victory Outreach Church in West Oakland and is actively involved in the church's Twilight Treasures ministry, which targets women and children involved in prostitution. Almost every night of the week, Perry passes out fliers promoting messages of love, faith and recovery.
"A lot of the girls aren't ready to accept the Lord," she said. "I just try to talk to them and give them a chance to think about what they want to do with their lives."
Perry and faith-based organizations are doing their part along with city and county agencies to address the city's problem of commercial sexual exploitation of children. Perry is determined to reach girls as young as 11 and 12 who are peddled for sex on the streets and on the Internet. She hopes that by sharing her testimony as a former prostitute it will inspire girls to break away from the grip of their pimps who often rape, beat and manipulate them into the sex trade.
"I don't have anything to hide," is what Perry tells many of the girls she meets wearing short shorts and tight miniskirts. "I'm living proof that it's possible to change."Rock bottom
In the early morning hours one day in 1991, a church worker from Victory Outreach found Perry on "the track" at International Boulevard and 104th Avenue. She had hit rock bottom after 20 years of prostituting and using crack cocaine. Through the church, Perry was able to get off the streets and get connected to counseling services.
"I had to do a lot of soul-searching to figure out what took place," Perry said. "And I'm still soul-searching."
Perry said she first became involved with prostitution when she set up a call-girl service with friends in grammar school. Perry said growing up she mainly dated men who could be her "sugar daddy" and take care of her and buy her nice things.
"I wanted the money," she said. "That's the mentality that led me one step closer to the prostitution lifestyle."
By the time Perry was 23, she was a functioning crack addict. She said she would get high in the restroom at her job at the phone company and then go back and sit at her desk to work. She supported her drug habit by prostituting herself in Oakland with runs to Reno, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Diego.
"I was an outlaw," Perry said. "I never had a pimp and I recruited other girls."
Perry said it used to be a thrill to take a girl to a hotel and know she was going to come out and hand over $500 to her. Perry parceled out the money to the girls but kept most of it for herself. She said there wasn't anything she wouldn't do to keep her addiction going.
'Treated like dirt'
Now Perry has a different attitude.
She explains to the girls who walk "the track" hunting for tricks that prostitution is not worth the danger they put themselves in and their lives are priceless.
"It's fast money, it's easy money," said Perry. "But it's not always easy when the cops are handcuffing you on the street or when you get pistol-whipped or you get beat down or you get in the car and you don't get paid for what you've done and you get treated like dirt."
Many of the girls Perry comes across have become hardened by prostitution and life on the streets. She said sometimes they pretend everything is OK but they have been "brainwashed" by their pimps.
"Some days it seems like a no-win situation," Perry said. "But the thing I like about it is getting to know the person behind the face, behind the makeup and behind the dress."
Perry doesn't have a specific approach when she confronts the girls on the street. She said sometimes she just tries to befriend them, or offer to buy them a cup of coffee or to pray with them.
"It's not a basic routine for me," Perry said. "I allow God to lead me with different people because everyone is an individual."
A way out
On holidays, including Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter and Mother's Day, Perry makes care packages including hygiene products to pass out to prostitutes. Perry said it's important to let the girls know she is here for them.
"I give them my number and I tell them there's a way out if they want," Perry said.
Over the years, Perry has gotten to know many of the girls by their real names, and their street names such as "Candy" or "Sugar."
Perry posts their names on what she calls a "Most Wanted" list and prays for them. She prays the girls will someday be able to realize their self-worth.
Perry considers herself a success of the Twilight Treasure ministry. She said her life's work is to continue reaching out to girls selling their bodies on the streets. It's impossible for her to know how many girls she's saved from prostitution, but she knows that the lessons she has learned could make the difference in someone else's life.
"People don't care what you know until they know you really care," Perry said. "They have to see that you're real."