Watch video above: See how this program helps women in Price Hill.
East Price Hill | Feb. 22, 10:50 a.m.
When Brandon Welch drives his bus along Warsaw Avenue, he’s not looking for passengers.
He’s looking for prostitutes.
Welch spots a woman with long, brown hair. She walks quickly with her arms crossed, the sleeves of her hot pink hoodie stretched and worn, her breath visible against the morning air.
Across the street, shoppers load groceries into cars, drivers fill up gas tanks and parents hold kids’ hands in the parking lot.
Welch and a volunteer look back at the woman as she walks past the concrete buildings. She shoots a quick glance at the bus and continues down the sidewalk.
“All right, I’m going to try to go over,” Welch says.
Welch pulls the bus into a turning lane so he can park on Sturm Street. Before he can get off Warsaw, a blue car zips up to the curb. The driver throws open the passenger door, the woman gets in, and they ride away.
“Damn,” Welch says. “I remember the first time that happened, I wanted to ram the bus into the back of their car … occasionally you see it, and it breaks your heart, especially when it’s people you know, people you love.”
Complaints related to prostitution in East Price Hill more than tripled from 2016 to 2018, according to the Cincinnati Police Department’s Open Data Portal. In that time, there were 207 complaints related to prostitution in East Price Hill, West Price Hill and Lower Price Hill, according to CPD data. Nearly half of those complaints were made in East Price Hill. WCPO spent time with Welch over two months to see just how prevalent it is.
Prostitution in East Price Hill happens in plain sight on the streets 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Welch says.
“Well, what time is it?” Welch says. “You’ve gotta think about that, I mean, it’s 11 in the morning on Friday … this is in your face, and it’s happening all day, everyday.”
Welch, outreach chaplain for The Lord’s Gym, drives a bus around Cincinnati’s neighborhoods two days a week in an effort to build genuine relationships with women so he can help get them off the streets and into treatment.
The Lord’s Gym, a branch of Foundation of Compassionate American Samaritans, has three locations in the Tri-State: Covington, Queensgate and Price Hill. It also operates a street outreach ministry that involves Welch and seven volunteers driving the bus around the city.
Sometimes Welch drives through areas of Over-the-Rhine, Hartwell and Covington, but he spends most of his time in East Price Hill, West Price Hill and Lower Price Hill. The neighborhoods, he says, have “become the target of prostitution.”
“The women we deal with, they’re at death’s door. And they know it,” Welch says.
The Lord’s Gym parking lot, Queensgate | Feb. 8, 9:30 a.m.
Welch loads up the bus with fresh doughnuts, hot water for cocoa, coats, gloves and purses. Welch’s main goal, he says, is to meet the women where they are. If they want to come aboard and have a meal, they’re greeted with food and drink. If they need personal hygiene items, they get a purse full.
Some women just want a safe place to be. Other times, a woman will talk for 45 minutes and ask how she can get into treatment.
If a woman wants to go to treatment, Welch says he’ll do whatever he can to find an open bed -- from making calls and finding out what insurance they have to driving them to a detox and staying with them through the interview process.
“We’ve driven women all the way to Virginia before to get to a detox,” Welch says.
The bus, which has been in operation since 2015, is part of The Lord’s Gym’s street outreach ministry. Welch sees at least 800 women yearly, executive director Scott Bowers estimates.
A woman asks for help getting off the streets about once a month, Bowers says.
Volunteer Kim Orlemann says it’s important for people to understand the women the bus serves aren’t show girls; this isn’t “Pretty Woman.
“They’re not your typical, what people would think when you go out and see prostitutes,” Orlemann says. “We’ll get donations of heels. We’re like, ‘No, these girls walk all day long. Gym shoes.’”
Welch believes people need consistency, so he drives the bus every Tuesday night and every Friday morning. Before he pulls out of the parking lot, he and Orlemann bow their heads.
“God … we pray that you lead us to the right ones this morning. And we just ask that the hope that we have would be imparted to them, and that they will see that there is a hope, there is a future, and that, God, things don’t have to be the way that they have … In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
East Price Hill | Feb. 8, 10:30 a.m.
“I sent Holly a text to let her know we’d be out,” Orlemann says.
Orelmann scans the streets. Her eyes are busy; her head turns with each passing house.
“Have you seen Marissa?” she asks Welch.
“Yeah, she’s looking rough,” he says.
Orlemann perks up when she thinks she spots a woman she knows. She turns her head as Welch drives past.
“Have you seen many girls down on Glenway by those trap houses, Brandon?"
Welch shakes his head.
“A trap house is often where there are guys, dope boys, and they have the drugs there,” Orlemann says. “And then the girls, they do it for dope, or they will give them dope, and then they have to go out and trick to get money to come back and pay for it, or they get beat up or worse.”
Orlemann is retired now, but she taught for 30 years on Cincinnati’s east side.
“I’m from the east side of town, and I see girls over here (in Price Hill neighborhoods) from the east side of town,” Orlemann says. “Girls that I maybe had in school.”
Now, Orlemann has been volunteering for over three years. Her main goal, she says, is to help get women into treatment.
“These streets are either going to kill them or -- they’re not going to get better being out here,” Orlemann says. “So treatment, for me, in my experience, is the only thing that is going to help them. And a lot of times, we pray for them to go to jail, because then at least they’re getting clean and sober and they can make a rational decision.
“When you’re out here, it’s hard to be rational about anything.”
Welch spots a woman he knows. He turns left and parks the bus by the sidewalk.
“There’s Briana,” he says.
Briana looks no older than a teenager. She wears two hoods on her head, layered for the February cold.
“Can I have a soda, please?” she asks as she sits down.
The 22-year-old says she just used fentanyl 30 minutes ago. She says it’s her drug of choice because “you get the rush.” Plus, it’s easy to find on the streets.
Briana speaks clearly. Her hands don’t twitch. Her attention doesn’t wander.
She picks at a doughnut and sips a can of soda. Her face is pale, and her eyes are tired.
“The women out here do -- let’s be honest -- they trick,” Briana says. “I’ve done it before, not that I’m happy about it ... men, they usually either steal or try to sell -- they don’t do what the women do out here.”
Briana says she’s been using the bus’ services for about two years, and she’s known Welch longer.
“It’s nice to just see a familiar face, that you can just sit on the bus and just be OK,” Briana says. “It’s like a safe zone. You don’t have to be sittin’ out in the streets in the cold.”
It wasn’t always this way, Briana says. She’d used for a few months in 2015, about a year after her son was born, but she says she was able to get clean and jump from place to place for a while. Then came a point where she couldn’t stay at people’s houses anymore.
She dropped her son off at his grandmother’s house.
She’s been using ever since.
“I’m just tired of getting high,” Briana says. “I haven’t seen my son in about six months, nor have I talked to him. I didn’t even wish him a merry Christmas. It’s just … it’s not a life to live.”
Orlemann asks her if she’ll go to a treatment facility up in Dayton, Ohio. Briana agrees, and Orlemann immediately makes the call.
“She has to be there by 2 p.m.,” Orlemann tells Welch. She smiles as she hands Briana the phone so she can answer intake questions.
Welch puts the bus in drive and heads for Queensgate.
“You’ll have to have all your stuff in a plastic bag,” Orlemann says.
That’s no problem, Briana says. She moves around so much she doesn’t have any clothes except for the ones she’s wearing.
Briana says it’s not that she hasn’t wanted to get clean, it’s just hard to find the right place. She says she has to feel comfortable and like the staff enough to stay at a facility. She tried to get treatment once before in Hamilton, Ohio, but she didn’t feel like it was the right fit for her. She says she knows people might have a hard time understanding that aspect of addiction and trying to go through treatment.
“I mean, we’re not all just dope fiends,” Briana says. “It’s not that we want to steal from people … it’s not that we want to put a needle in our arm … like if you’re in a right state of mind, are you really going to going to stick a needle in your arm and shoot a drug in there? Are you really ready to risk it all to put that drug in your arm knowing it could be the last time?
“We’re still humans. People are like, ‘Just let ‘em die,’ like what if that was your little boy, or if that was your little girl … you wouldn’t be sayin’ that. Would you really let them die? No … you wouldn’t.”
Briana says she hopes to develop coping skills while she’s in treatment, and she wants to be a part of her son’s life again.
“I really hope to see him,” she says.
The Lord’s Gym parking lot, Queensgate | Feb. 22, 9 a.m.
Welch says Briana’s entire demeanor changed as soon as they got to the treatment facility on Feb. 8.
“She signed in, and as we were waiting she was like, ‘I’m going to run. I’ve got to get out of here, I can’t do this,’” Welch says.
Welch convinced her to talk to the intake nurse and get more information. He says Briana’s main concern was getting some form of drug to help calm her down, and that wasn’t going to happen until 9 p.m.
“And so she came out, and she said, ‘You know, you’re either going to take me back, or I’m just going to have to leave here. I can’t do this.’ And so, got in the car and made the trip back, and I dropped her back off in the neighborhood we picked her up in,” Welch says.
This happens, Welch says. He’s seen it before.
“You have to be willing to face disappointment and not lose heart,” Welch says. “You have to be able to face a lot of challenges and obstacles while you walk with them through this process … it’s all a struggle, and so I think it’s really important for those that work and walk alongside that we don’t lose heart and that we have faith.
“As disappointing as what happened with Bri was, for me, I believe it is a step in her getting clean one day. I do. Because it did take a lot of courage for her to make that decision, it took a lot of courage for her to get in the car and to make an hour drive up the road. She did put effort in, and I believe that it is a step closer.”
Welch prepares the bus for Friday’s run. He plans to drive through Briana’s neighborhood because he hadn’t seen her since he dropped her back off in East Price Hill.
“You worry. And it kills you inside,” Welch says. “I mean, to drop her back off on the street that ... is killing her.”
East Price Hill | Feb. 22, 10 a.m.
Welch heads out on his usual route. A woman named Ashley gets on the bus at the Kroger off Warsaw. She takes a doughnut and hot cocoa and cries as she talks about losing her father and her “baby daddy” over the last two weeks. She gets off the bus as quickly as she got on, and Welch makes his way to East Price Hill.
Welch spots Briana walking along Warsaw Avenue. She isn’t alone; another hooded figure bobs beside her. Brandon pulls the bus onto Mansion Avenue, opens the doors and Briana and Sasha* get on.
Sasha flails her limbs. She twists her hands and clenches her jaw.
“She ain’t slept in eight days,” Briana says. “She’s been on the meth.”
Sasha asks for a doughnut and a Sunkist, but she can’t hold the pop can without crushing it. She squeezes a doughnut as she lies on her back and rubs the soles of her feet on the windows. Crumbs fly from her closed fist.
Brandon gives Briana clean socks to put on Sasha’s feet. Briana wrangles her legs and peels off her socks. Sasha’s skin is yellow parchment; she is so thin every tendon in her legs protrudes. An abscess on her neck is purple and open. Brandon rummages in an overhead compartment for gauze.
Sasha yells, “I swear I see a cat in here,” as Briana changes her clothes.
Briana takes off an old bandage that’s dangling from the abscess and tapes fresh gauze over the wound. Brandon finds a clean T-shirt and a coat in a box on the back of the bus.
“Why do I have to be a drug addict,” Sasha screams. “Why can’t I live a normal life?”
Brandon offers both women a ride to The Lord’s Gym so they can sleep for a while.
Briana says no -- they’ll keep walking.
Brandon opens the door, and they get off the bus. Sasha sways back and forth on the side of the street as she tries to put her blond hair in a ponytail.
Brandon watches them in the rear view as he pulls onto Warsaw.
A volunteer on the bus stares at the floor.
“That was hard,” she says.
*The name of this woman has been changed to protect her identity.
Author’s note: My colleague Emily Maxwell and I tried to reconnect with Briana to ask what led up to her leaving the treatment facility in Dayton. We could not interview her the day Welch picked her up on Mansion Avenue because she was consumed with caring for the woman with her. We have not been able to reach her since.
We interviewed four other women who boarded the bus but didn’t use their stories. Those women appeared too compromised by drug use to give informed consent to the interviews. Although Briana admitted to having used drugs just before boarding the bus, she appeared lucid and consented to being a part of the story.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder, you can click here to learn more about treatment options.