9 Investigates prostitution, the human side of a social tragedy

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OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. - 9 Investigates discovered that some mothers are turning to prostitution to provide for their families along one of central Florida’s oldest tourism corridors -- U.S. 192 in Osceola County.

Only Channel 9's Nancy Alvarez found that the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office worked no less than 98 prostitution cases along 192 last year, resulting in dozens of arrests.

In a single, two-day operation last November, some 22 prostitutes and johns were arrested, police said.

But Alvarez met a woman working as a prostitute along 192 who showed that the numbers and statistics are just part of the story.

Less than five minutes after Alvarez and her photographer started watching the woman walk along 192, she was approached by a man driving by and looking to pay for sex. That time, she passed on the proposition, but usually she does not.

The woman is Brenda. She is 34. She is a mother of five. She is a prostitute. She is an addict.

“I could never go out there sober and do that, you know, because every time you lay down with someone you don't know, you put a hole in your soul,” Brenda said as she cried and opened up to Alvarez.  

The day she and Alvarez spoke, Brenda was sober but still emotional. She openly discussed what she said is really happening along what was once Osceola County's flourishing tourist corridor.

But today many of the hotels originally meant to accommodate central Florida’s theme park tourists are homeless shelters filled with families.

And Brenda said women -- many of them mothers -- are selling their bodies to survive.

“You have these women that are so hungry and so desperate to feed their families that they don't care if it kills them,” Brenda told Alvarez.

Brenda would not give names, but what she did share about her client list might surprise some.

“I've dealt with Orlando police officers, judges, lawyers,” she said.

“These have been your customers?” Alvarez asked.

“Yeah, there's business owners on 192, right there,” Brenda said.

Alvarez also learned the situation might very well be worse than it appears on the street. Most of the women caught up in prostitution along 192 are not walking up and down the strip. Many dates are arranged online these days. All a customer needs is a phone and an Internet connection, which is free with a room rental at many of the area’s hotels.

The Osceola County Sheriff’s Office maintains it is working aggressively to stop the illicit activity along 192, but much of it easily could be going on unnoticed.

“I don't really think that people believe that this is going on,” said Jill Bolander Cohen, with the Life Boat Project and a co-founder of the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force.

“You have the conventions coming through.  You have the amusement parks,” Cohen said. “This is where people are going.  And it’s all about the demand. If you stop the demand, you stop the madness. Period.”

Through the Lifeboat Project, Cohen has set big goals: stiffer penalties for johns, more undercover busts by law enforcement and rehabilitation programs meant to serve as an alternative to jail for women like Brenda.

“I say it doesn't faze me but it does,” Brenda told Alvarez.

But still, she insisted that a single night in jail will not likely keep her or others away from the draw of quick cash -- sometimes $50 for a few minutes. In a vast tourism region that markets make believe, Brenda said for many there is an ugly reality.   

“This is survival,” she said through her tears. “This is do or die.”

Brenda's children live out of state, but there are more than 3,000 homeless children living in Osceola County, and many are living in the U.S. 192 hotels where this kind of activity is happening in the rented rooms next door.