I meet Elizabeth in the office of a storefront church that now serves as a recovery house. She’s one of around two dozen recently incarcerated women who live in the rooms upstairs and in the three-story house next door, which until several years ago was boarded up and used as a drug squat by local addicts. The office is in the back, where the altar once stood, and the room is dark except for the dusty daylight filtering through a few small windows set high on a side wall. Across the street stands another crumbling row house, plywood across the windows, where young men in tank tops lean against the ground-floor wall and puff cigarettes in the bright May sunshine.

The recovery house, named Why Not Prosper, is in Germantown, a poor residential neighborhood on the outskirts of North Philadelphia, whose main drags consist of long stretches of tightly packed row houses interspersed with corner stores and auto body shops, fast food joints, bars and discount liquor stores. The sidewalks are broken and weedy, and flyers stapled to telephone poles proclaim “We Buy Ugly Houses” and “Junk Cars $250.” It’s a place where drugs and other troubles are not hard to find. But that doesn’t bother Elizabeth. Not anymore.

“You open the door, you go outside, you see all the nonsense,” she says. “It doesn’t even faze me. And that’s amazing, from a drug addict who was pretty much getting high for 17 years straight.”

Elizabeth is a street survivor. She’s 37, tall and broad-shouldered, with straight blond hair that falls past her shoulders. Her eyes are piercing blue, and her face and neck are lightly sunburned. She wears a T-shirt, athletic shorts and lots of silver jewelry: earrings, bracelets, rings, a small cross. She looks healthy and her voice is strong; she doesn’t flinch when discussing her past.

‘I been in different places, all different places, using,’ says Elizabeth. ‘But you take yourself wherever you go.’ Photo by Barbara Johnston

She grew up in a small town in western Pennsylvania, where her parents ran a small business out of their home. “I probably looked like I had a pretty normal upbringing,” she says. It was a facade. Her father viciously abused her, her mother, her sister. “Behind closed doors I suffered being molested and sodomized and all that fun jazz for a long time, for about 10 years straight.”

She graduated from high school and left for Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where she majored in criminal justice and aspired to a career in law enforcement. She practiced karate and kickboxing, learned to fire a gun. She wanted to protect kids from predators like her dad. But though her abuse was over, its consequences were just kicking in. “I didn’t have to worry about being woken up or forced to do things I didn’t want to do anymore,” she says. “So the battle for my independence started then. And so did the drug use.”

At 19, she tried cocaine. By 20, she was smoking crack. She dropped out of school, got married, had two kids. Daughters. At 22, she mustered the courage to press charges against her father. He went to prison; her addictions continued to spiral. At 26, she tried heroin. It numbed her. She got hooked. “I knew I was in deep shit as soon as I experienced my first dope sickness,” she says. “It just got steadily worse from there.”

Deep in addiction, she gave custody of her daughters to her mother-in-law. “To protect them from me,” she says. Then she took off, bouncing from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Biloxi, Mississippi, to Camden, New Jersey, and all points in between. Walking the avenues, day and night, turning tricks to feed her habit. “I been in different places, all different places, using,” she says. “But you take yourself wherever you go.”

The police busted her again and again. She did a little time, got out, hit the streets, scored some drugs. Got busted again. She was a far cry from the small town girl who dreamed of being a cop. In 2010 she landed in Kensington, the epicenter of North Philadelphia’s notorious “badlands,” a grim, violent slum of dilapidated row houses, shuttered factories and vacant lots just outside the city core. She stood on Kensington Avenue, shadowed by elevated train tracks, picking up clients, getting high, getting arrested. Homeless, she slept on a mattress under a pickup truck canopy in a weedy patch near the train yards. Another time she squatted in the Kensington abandos, a notoriously lawless stretch of vacant row houses.

“Out of all the places I’ve ever been, Kensington literally almost killed me,” she says. “It was barbaric. Animalistic. The things I had to do and having to stand there and having to deal with the type of people I had to deal with. And being the person I was in addiction. I was not a very nice person, you know what I mean? My sole focus was not to feel pain. Emotionally and physically.”

In two years she racked up two new soliciting cases and a violation of probation — charges that under Pennsylvania’s harsh prostitution statutes threatened to land her in prison upstate. But through the girls on Kensington Avenue she heard about a new city program called Project Dawn Court, a diversionary program for female prostitutes. If she avoided another arrest, completing the program would keep her out of prison and wipe away the record of her charges. “I knew I was in trouble,” she says. “I wanted an easy way out, but I really wanted help at the same time. So I called them.”

Almost three years later, Elizabeth is preparing to graduate from Dawn Court. She’s almost 10 months clean since her last relapse — her longest stretch of sobriety since her teens. Perhaps more important, she’s undergone years of intensive trauma therapy, the first psychiatric treatment she’s had for the torture of her childhood and adolescence, not to mention the years of self-abuse on the streets. “I’m so grateful for this program, because I’d probably be dead if it wasn’t for them,” she says. “I didn’t think there was a way out of Kensington.”

Dawn Court is Philadelphia’s newest alternative justice program, modeled after the city’s nationally lauded drug treatment and mental health courts. Launched as a pilot program in 2010 and significantly expanded since then, its mandate is simple: Provide women repeatedly arrested for prostitution with therapeutic and social services to help keep them from re-offending. It functions as a collaborative venture between many city agencies, from the district attorney and public defender to health and human services, probation and parole — all under the authority of the municipal court.

City budgets are tight in Philadelphia, no less so in the criminal justice realm, and Dawn Court operates on a shoestring, relying heavily on grants and donated staff time from its various participating agencies. But in a lucky break, in 2013 Sara Gruen ’13J.D. won a Thomas L. Shaffer public interest fellowship, underwriting her salary and benefits for two years as the program’s only dedicated public defender.

The position makes Gruen the primary legal advocate for Dawn Court’s women, a role that prior to her arrival rotated among a group of volunteers from the public defender’s office. Her role is most crucial when the women stumble — failing drug tests and skipping appointments. Flunking out of Dawn Court is difficult but not impossible, and it carries severe consequences, often a sentence of several years at a women’s prison upstate. Gruen’s job is to keep her clients in the program even when they test the court’s patience. Her advocacy has earned her the gratitude of women like Elizabeth, whose own path through Dawn Court was far from easy. “Sara really went to bat for me,” she says. “Every time I go to court, every time I talk to her, she puts her best foot forward for us and has hope for us.”

I meet Gruen for the first time in early May, in a coffee shop near the University of Pennsylvania, the day before Dawn Court’s first session of the month, which she’s invited me to attend. In her early 30s, she looks, well, very lawyerly today, with her pinstriped suit jacket and tortoiseshell eyeglasses, and dark brown hair pulled back in a practical ponytail. A graduate of Brandeis, where she majored in women’s studies, she’s had a longtime interest in social justice issues that’s obvious the moment we begin to talk.

One of the unique aspects of Dawn Court, Gruen tells me, is the type of women it seeks out — not youthful, first-time offenders, but chronic recidivists, commonly well into middle age, with decades on the streets. There’s a cold practicality behind that choice: It is these women who cost the city the most, cycling in and out of jail up to several times per year. The city spends on average more than $50,000 per week to house the few dozen prostitutes it usually has locked up at any one time. These women are by and large familiar faces to the justice system. “We’re really screening for people with the longest histories and the most serious drug addictions and the most serious mental health issues,” Gruen says.

There’s a deeper logic at work as well. Perhaps counterintuitively, these street-hardened women can prove more prepared to change their ways than much younger women just starting out on the street. “In a way, it’s good to get people at the late stage, because they’ve had a longer time to think, to accept, to want to get out, to accept their addiction and to want to not use anymore,” Gruen says.

Dawn Court convenes just twice a month, meaning most of her time on the job is spent outside the courtroom. Gruen meets with her clients in jail, at their homes, in treatment facilities and halfway houses, keeping close tabs on their progress. Her caseload consists of more than 40 women at any one time, each with a complex history and the potential to slip into crisis at any moment.

The program asks much of its participants. In a typical week, the women will meet with a probation officer, take one or more drug tests, and attend therapy sessions and 12-step meetings, parenting classes, remedial education classes and job training. At least once a month they appear before the judge for a status update. Predictably, for women whose lives on the streets were by nature lawless and chaotic, there are frequent hitches, from minor slip-ups to full-blown meltdowns. When trouble strikes, their first instinct is often to disappear. “They’ve been running their whole lives. It’s a survival mechanism,” Gruen says. “The moment they feel any kind of stress, they’re gone.”

Dawn Court’s core philosophy is that psychological trauma is almost without fail the key factor underlying its participants’ recurring troubles. That marks a shift from previous efforts by the Philadelphia courts to intervene in the lives of street prostitutes, which focused almost exclusively on substance abuse and addiction issues. A common belief — one still widely held by the public — is that prostitution is simply a means to an end, a way to procure cash for the next fix. Tame the addiction, the thinking went, and the lure of the streets would fade.

The shift in emphasis is largely thanks to Mary DeFusco, director of training and recruitment at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, a public defender for more than 30 years and the driving force behind the creation of Dawn Court. Throughout her career, DeFusco saw the sobriety-focused approach fail time after time with her clients, who might get clean for months or even years but inevitably relapse and succumb again to the call of the streets.

The missing ingredient, DeFusco says in a phone interview, was the trauma treatment. The addictions, though typically profound, are often just a coping response to a deeper malaise — the aftereffects of crippling traumas such as childhood sexual abuse. Like a psychological cancer, these traumas must be identified and excised before real and lasting healing can begin. “We teach them where the source of their problem is, why drug and alcohol treatment is not working for them,” she says. “They’re suffering the effects of sexual trauma.”

A second important evolution in Dawn Court’s methods is its approach to drug relapse. A failed drug test has consequences — it resets the clock on a participant’s progress through the program and can send her back to jail to wait for an inpatient drug treatment bed to become available. But it is treated by the court as a setback, not a catastrophe. “Before when they relapsed, it was like their life was over,” DeFusco says. “With our court, what they learn is that relapse is just part of the journey to recovery. Once you recognize that, you get a whole different picture of what success means.”

DeFusco describes the response to the program from elected officials, the various agencies’ staffs and the public at large as almost universally positive. “I can’t even count on the fingers of one hand the people who have opposed it,” she says. “There’s an increasing awareness in Philadelphia, among the public, that these women are not criminals, that they are victims. Nobody really wants to see them incarcerated.”

Sure enough, the only criticism of Dawn Court I can find online comes from the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the decriminalization of sex work. In an interview in February with Talking Points Memo, a liberal news blog, Lindsay Roth, co-founder of the organization’s Philadelphia chapter, questioned the program’s premise that prostitutes were driven to the streets by trauma. “There’s no data to support what they are saying. People do sex work to get money,” she said. Roth further criticized Project Dawn’s therapy requirement, calling it coercive. “Since when is a court a therapist?”

The idea that sex work should be legal is not exactly a fringe view. In much of the world the sex trade is underground but is often largely ignored by authorities; a handful of countries, notably Holland, have even gone so far as to overtly legalize and regulate it. Just this August, Amnesty International called for the global decriminalization of sex work and brothels, saying legalization would bring vulnerable women out of the shadows, free them from stigma and reduce violence and abuse.

DeFusco sympathizes with calls for decriminalization and agrees that jails and prisons are not where prostitutes belong. “I hate the way the system views these women,” she says. “These are the only people I know of who the only victims of their crimes are themselves.”

Yet she still opposes legalization. Treating consensual sex work like any other profession, she says, almost always relies on embracing one of prostitution’s most enduring myths: It is a victimless crime. “What I’ve found, in most of the cases I’ve seen — I mean overwhelmingly — the person has been sexually abused as a child then thrown out on the street. They’ve been made vulnerable to a pimp. Then the pimp comes in and rules the roost,” says DeFusco. “She’s then caught into the lifestyle and can’t get out.” Prostitution becomes a prison, sometimes if only of the mind.

When I finally see Dawn Court in action, it’s clear the vast majority of the women in the program share DeFusco’s perspective. The session I observe is in early May, as usual in a small courtroom on the 11th floor of the Philadelphia criminal courts building in the heart of downtown. I take a seat in the jury box as the gallery benches fill with several dozen Dawn Court women, some of whom will wait hours for their few minutes before the judge. It’s a racially diverse group, with a wide age range that clusters in the late 30s and early 40s. Many wear heavy makeup and all are casually dressed, some provocatively so. A few are heavily tattooed. Others have prematurely aged faces that can only be described as ruins: deeply lined, caved in, haunted. One heavyset woman in her late 20s slouches in the back row, dark hair spilling out from under a hooded sweatshirt, nodding in what looks like a drug haze.

Overall the mood is relaxed; the women chatter and giggle and show each other photos on their cell phones. It’s a friendly, well-acquainted group for the most part. There’s a little tension but none of the usual gloom and anxiety that typifies even low-level criminal courts. If anything, the atmosphere reminds me of a high school assembly before the principal walks in. Finally the bailiff calls out “All rise!” and Judge Marsha Niefield, a woman in late middle age with a stylish dome of frosted hair, strolls in.

When Dawn Court gets underway, it operates like no other court I’ve ever seen — from the outset it feels less like Law & Order than an especially intense episode of ¬_Oprah_. The first order of business is a “graduation” for five women who have finished the program, complete with a motivational speaker, applause and framed diplomas. To get here, the women have kept clean for a solid year, completed an intensive therapy regime, reliably attended various classes and meetings, and otherwise stayed out of trouble. The judge gives a short speech aimed in part at the graduates but equally at the women hoping to follow in their footsteps.

“I’m thrilled to see that you’re here, not only to celebrate your own successes but as a means of encouragement for the other people who are sitting here — those who will come behind you, those who are struggling and who know that they’re not the only ones,” she says. “We’ve watched you grow, we’ve watched you stumble, and here we are a year later and you guys are all but unrecognizable from the people who started with us.”

The judge then welcomes the speaker: Rev. Michelle Simmons, the founder of the Why Not Prosper recovery house in Germantown, where I met Elizabeth. Simmons, a gregarious, middle-aged African American, connects immediately with the crowd. Not long ago, she says, she was no different from them — a drug addict with a long rap sheet; a prostitute who worked the streets of Los Angeles for years. After a stretch in prison, she finally kicked drugs and went back to school, earning a master’s degree in psychology and opening a nonprofit to support women like herself.

‘Failure is an event,’ says Rev. Michelle Simmons. ‘It’s not a destiny that controls your life.’ Photo by Barbara Johnston

“We must remember one thing — failure is not fatal. All right?” Simmons says. “Failure is merely a state of mind, and sometimes, it’s just an opinion. Failure is an event. It’s not a destiny that controls your life.”

Her powerful talk obviously resonates with the women. Simmons finishes by exhorting them to engage fully with the program’s trauma therapy. “Dump those secrets you’re holding,” she says. “Don’t leave this court without dumping that stuff. Because if you don’t deal with that stuff, that stuff is going to deal with you. Buy into that process.”

Next, the judge calls the women individually and reminds them of their path through the Dawn Court, noting their missteps with gentle humor and praising their fortitude for sticking with the program. Then things get really interesting. Holding their certificates, the women give a series of moving, improvised speeches. It’s a purely voluntary tradition, Gruen tells me later, that evolved spontaneously around a year ago.

The second graduate, a blonde woman in early middle age with a careworn face and heavily tattooed arms, speaks for a good five minutes. “I’m just so grateful, and I feel so free. I really didn’t believe in the criminal justice system at all. I didn’t think they’d do anything for me. However, this court really works if you give it a chance,” she says. “They put everything in place for us to be successful. And when I really committed myself to it, and engaged, I received a tremendous amount of encouragement and help. Until I was strong enough to do it for myself.” She thanks each of the court officers by name and walks off to loud clapping and hugs.

The last graduate speaks only briefly but to great effect. Somewhere in her 50s, she is one of the oldest women in attendance. “When I came in, I didn’t want to be in Project Dawn at all,” she says in a gruff Philly accent. “I didn’t want to be alive.” She chokes up and wipes tears away with the back of her hand.

“Now I know there is life for me. Life still goes on,” she says. “I just want to say, to everybody, all the girls, that you can do this. You just need to stay strong and remain clean. And you can accomplish anything you want to do.” Gruen stands and requests that the woman’s criminal charges be dismissed with prejudice. “Absolutely,” the judge says. The audience cheers.

The mood shifts once the graduates leave the courtroom. The time has come for progress reports and status updates. The first dozen or so women are all in good standing, keeping their appointments and passing drug tests. The judge offers everyone with perfect attendance a small gift bag. Sara pulls a file for each woman out of bulging accordion case, jots down a few quick notes, stuffs the file away again. It’s a fast churn. As the morning wears on, the good cheer begins to fade and success gives way to struggles.

Hiccups slow the pace down to a crawl; most involve drugs. An agitated young woman protests what she claims is a false positive test for PCP. “I’m not going to admit to something I didn’t do,” she says. “It’s really stressing me out.” Gruen tells the judge that PCP was never the woman’s drug of choice. The judge nods. “Just take a step back, take a deep breath,” the judge says. “We’re not fixated, and we’re not worked up about it.” She orders a new drug test and sends the woman home.

Gruen’s toughest moment comes late in the afternoon. An imposing black woman, wearing a gauzy minidress and a look of haughty contempt, stands before the judge and refuses to explain how she came to miss a series of therapy appointments.

“You need to go to your appointment today,” the judge tells her bluntly.

“I’ll go, but I won’t tell them anything,” the woman replies.

“You have such attitude today,” the judge snaps.

“I’m not a human being. I’m a project for ya’ll,” the woman responds, eyes flashing.

The judge’s patience is worn thin. “I don’t know if she belongs in this program,” she tells Gruen. “Why are we even engaging with this attitude? She’s rude, she’s arrogant, she’s sarcastic, she’s totally inappropriate.”

The woman pipes up again. “You make all the decisions,” she says.

Gruen looks frazzled. “I don’t know if she’s going to give us the right tone,” she tells the judge. “I would ask that she be given the opportunity to make this appointment.” The judge sighs and assents, letting her off with a warning.

One of the last women to appear is tall and rail-thin, with hollow, restless eyes. She breathlessly narrates how she relapsed on heroin after her methadone treatment was suspended for three days because of a positive drug test. “I used the night before just to make it through,” she says, her voice cracking. “I feel so frustrated because I was doing so good.”

Gruen grimaces. “Judge, I think the bottom line is that it’s not a reasonable decision to shoot up when you’re denied methadone. That’s not good decision-making. I would just ask that she be allowed to continue treatment.”

The young woman dabs at her eyes with a tissue. “I am going to do a complete 360,” she says. “I really just want to turn my life around and get back on the road.”

The tears are not enough. The judge chides her about her living situation — after completing a stint in rehab, the young woman moved in with a boyfriend on Kensington Avenue. “Your old stomping grounds,” she says. The judge motions for a sheriff’s deputy. “I’m sorry. I’m taking you into custody.” The woman hangs her head as she’s cuffed and led through a side door.

It’s a down moment to be sure, especially following the uplift from the morning. The woman is headed to Philadelphia County Prison, which despite its name functions more like a municipal jail. She’s not out of the program, but she will almost certainly cool her heels in a cell for several months waiting for another scarce rehabilitation bed to open up. Once her rehab begins, the clock will start to run on her time in the program.

And there are harsher days than this. Dawn Court’s track record is far from perfect, with roughly 20 percent of participants leaving the program in its first few years. These noncompliant women are dealt with in the second session of each month, which Gruen assures me presents a far darker and more depressing scene. The standard destination for those ejected from the program is Muncy, a medium/maximum-security women’s prison in rural north Pennsylvania. Thanks to the state’s draconian prostitution laws — considered the harshest in the country — the women will likely be there for several years.

Those long sentences trouble Gruen, particularly because women who choose to fight their prostitution charges through the standard criminal justice system sometimes receive much lighter sentences. It’s an outcome that seems unfair, but the mechanism behind it is straightforward. To enter Project Dawn, women must essentially plead guilty to the charges against them — nolo contendere, or no contest. Once they successfully graduate from the program those charges are retroactively erased. It’s a nice deal for those who make it.

For those who don’t, it’s a big catch. That’s because women who contest prostitution charges through the regular courts often win major concessions from prosecutors in exchange for a plea bargain. Like almost everywhere, Philadelphia’s criminal courts are massively overburdened and prosecutors have no interest in taking minor cases all the way to trial. Entering Project Dawn bypasses the plea process — and erases any incentive the state has to make a deal. So when women flunk out, they are hit by the full force of their original charges.

The heavy stakes of failure make Gruen acutely aware that not every woman who qualifies for the Project Dawn really belongs there. “It can be high risk,” she says.

But also high reward. For women caught deep in the web of addiction and life on the streets, there’s often nothing else like it. Elizabeth, an authority on courts, jails and probation, vouches for this in our interview at the recovery house. “My last experience was over in Jersey. There was no opportunity for rehab. There was no opportunity for anything,” she tells me. “You’re a number. A flat-out number.

“To what I’ve seen, in my experience, Project Dawn is the only place for women like me, and my addiction, who treat me like a human being. Someone that’s worth something.”

John Rudolf is a freelance writer based in Portland, Maine.

The magazine welcomes comments, but we do ask that they be on topic and civil. Read our full comment policy.