HARLEM - When Sandy Perez* was 9 years old, her mother's brother raped her. Afterwards she ran down to a local bar to tell her mother and instead of opening her arms her mother closed her fists and gave her a beating.
Perez spent the next month and a half in the hospital.
By 11, she was a runaway in the hands of pimps and pedophiles, selling her body on the streets of New York City. At 15, she was a drug addict supporting two heroin addictions: hers and her pimps. That's the same age she started going to jail, eventually racking up more than 60 arrests, mostly for prostitution.
Latoya Payne's* story started differently but ended much the same - on Riker's Island.
Two days after Christmas in 2005, Payne smoked crack-cocaine for the first time. Her addiction quickly became a monster, gobbling up everything she cared about. She lost a good job with the gas company, as well as her apartment and custody of her two daughters, and ended up getting raped by a "friend" she got high with. He nearly choked her to death for putting up a fight.
The attack didn't stop her from using. Instead, she further alienated herself from her family and ended up getting arrested several times.
Those were the bad old days.
Today, Perez and Payne are turning the corner on their addictions and their dark pasts. These women are two of the newest residents of Kandake House, a recently opened $15 million state of the art residential facility in East Harlem for formerly incarcerated women with substance abuse issues. While drug-treatment programs are as common in Harlem as street corner bodegas - a ubiquitous reminder of the neighborhood's lingering battle with drugs and addiction - Kandake House is one of just a few that cater only to women and women with children.
While the standard in-patient services such as drug and alcohol counseling and domestic violence prevention programs are offered, clients at Kandake House are also provided with vocational training and classes in holistic therapies such as Reiki, Yoga and massage. They even have culinary arts classes taught by a chef who works in the facility's five-star commercial kitchen. The building is also green-friendly, with gas fire boilers, plenty of natural sun and paint and carpets that contain no volatile chemicals. There's also a greenhouse on the 8th floor roof and garden space.
The goal of the facility, located at 435 East 119th Street, is to provide the most vulnerable women with a safe place to wean themselves from their addictions and to heal the emotional wounds that so often fuel the cycle of self-destruction and addiction. Kandake, which is an ancient Nubian word that means queen or warrior woman, is also a place of last resort. It works with the criminal, drug and family courts to offer convicts an alternative to prison.
"These women have suffered so many traumas," said Anne Elliott (pictured above with New York Congressman Charles Rangel at the Kandake House opening), the executive director of Greenhope Services for Women, Inc., which runs Kandake House. "So we unapologetically put their care first. They can't take care of themselves if they are too busy trying to take care of others. They are often dealing with angry kids and shame."
So there are no men treated here. Too much of a distraction and too often the relationships these women have had with men are at the source of so much of their pain. Elliott said about 90 percent of the clients were sexually abused or raped. About 20 percent of them are HIV positive. All have been through the criminal justice system.
"This is life or death," Elliott said of the women who come through Kandake's doors.
Until last month Greenhope, which was founded 35 years ago, operated a treatment program inside the convent of The Holy Rosary Church across the street from Kandake House. It was a much smaller operation, serving about 40 women. The new facility can serve up to 72 single women and 28 women with children. It also offers out-patient services to anyone who needs them.
On Monday, as rain fell outside the building and clouds muted any hint of sunshine, Perez, 43, spoke of her hardscrabble upbringing, of being a child prostitute and drug addict most of her life. But she also spoke of redemption and growth. Before coming to the facility a little more than three months ago, she was on Riker's Island.
A judge ordered her to Kandake House. She has been clean for four months, the longest she's been clean since a stint in 1985.
"Really, since I've been here I can already feel my strength growing a lot," said Perez. "I've always been a people pleaser. I never had a voice. But I have one right now. I'm learning how to live with my feelings and not medicate them away the way I did for so many years. I'm learning to feel the guilt, feel the shame. It's not a very nice feeling but I know that I don't have to medicate. Before I had to be numb."
Monica Holmes, 61, a Greenhope alum, is one of the many success stories here. After decades of drug abuse, drug dealing, stints in jail and prostitution when she needed an "emergency" fix, she went through the program and has been clean for seven years. She also is an overnight counselor at Kandake House who credits the program with helping her to learn that "she can dance and sing without a drink or drug."
Holmes is a regal, bald woman with scars that line her neck from where she would shoot drugs into her veins.
"I see a little of myself in everybody," Holmes said. "I can reach them if I can be present and visible to let them know that I don't care who you hurt or where you've been, that they can change."
*The names of the two women who recently entered Kandake House have been changed to protect their identities.