|Brenda Myers-Powell, co-founder of the Dreamcatcher Foundation|
At just 14, Brenda Myers-Powell was a victim of human trafficking. For 25 years, she was on the streets. Not just any streets, but Chicago’s meanest streets where crime, drugs and murder consume full grown women and girls alike, consigning them to alleys and gutters in varying states of inebriation, often with no hope.
Myers-Powell knows firsthand the perils of the streets. She was strangled before, she says. Shot. She was addicted to drugs. But she wanted something better, Myers-Powell, 62, recalled in an interview.
Today, as co-founder of the Dreamcatcher Foundation established in 2007, she is an advocate for girls and women who find themselves in the streets and lifestyle that once held her hostage.
“I am an advocate to the ladies, to their families because I don’t just deal with the ladies,” Myers-Powell said. “I deal with the families. This was me. This used to be me. As far as I’m concerned, I’m still them.”
Indeed Myers-Powell considers herself to be one of them. And through her work with Dreamcatcher, she seeks to help free others from the lifestyle of prostitution, drug addiction and nocturnal street life that can lead to death. For Myers-Powell, it’s personal.
“Survivor founded, survivor driven, and survivor focused”. These words come straight from the mission statement of the Dreamcatcher Foundation. Co-founders Stephanie Daniels-Wilson and Myers-Powell built their foundation from the ground up in an effort to fight human trafficking all around Chicago and it’s suburbs.
“We’re a vision of hope,” Daniels-Wilson said in a phone interview while she was handing out gift cards to women on the streets, “I am very passionate and I don't want any lady out there to suffer alone.”
“It was just a passion for me because that’s where I came from,” Myers-Powell said. “I was on the streets for 25 years and there’s so many different ways to kill girls out there on the street. I’ve been strangled several times. I know what it looks like. I’ve been shot. I’ve been stabbed.”
They are survivors who have been through the same physical, emotional, and mental abuse, they were better prepared to help those in need of support and help change their lives.
“Our biggest piece is our outreach where we go in the streets and actually meet girls where they’re at. That’s our strong point. We go out to the streets and we have relationships with the ladies because we’re survivors also. We’ve been where they’ve been,” Myers-Powell said.
Myers-Powell expressed how prostitutes were uncomfortable going to The Dream Center, which is why they have a van in the streets once a week late at night driving into known trafficking areas. They ride around the community offering a shower, clothes, a home-cooked meal, and a safe space to sleep at their drop-off center.
“What this does is give us an opportunity to get a better assessment with them because, if your tummy is full, they’re fresh, they got a shower, and you’re feeling better about yourself, we can better reach them like that because they’re feeling better,” Myers-Powell said.
The foundation's goal is to empower, educate, and provide support for girls and women in prostitution. They travel all across the city including south, west, east, and north side, as well as the suburbs.
For this to be possible, the Foundation relies on private donors and personal fundraising all year long. Without government funding they are able to do more for the women they know on the streets for longer periods of time because there are no restrictions or limits with private funding.
“We already know them, some of them, because we’ve been where they’ve been. We’ve met them through experiences,” Myers-Powell said. “They know who we are so it makes it easier for them to accept us.”
They provide a safe space to talk and get psychological help, education services, a place to shower and sleep (called The Dream Center), and more significantly, they are open 24 hours every day located in an undisclosed location for privacy purposes.
“We go out there and we meet them on their terms and we deliver toiletry bags where they can have an opportunity to freshen themselves up. We give them condoms. We also give out snacks and if they’re really hungry, we’ll give them a McDonald’s card,” Myers-Powell said.
In 2015, a documentary titled, “Dreamcatcher” was released about the Foundation’s work. Through the eyes of Myers-Powell, viewers are taken into the world of human trafficking and prostitution.
“I’m here to tell each and every one of you today, it is not your fault,” Myers-Powell says to a group of young women in one scene from the documentary.
Dreamcatcher won the Directing Award: World Cinema Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, the Cinema Eye Honor Award, and was nominated for seven other awards.
Myers-Powell continues to do work with her foundation as well as has made it part of her mission in 2020 to “put more pressure on law enforcement, the mayor, all involved” in the alleged serial killer murders in Chicago “to look at these ladies as human beings and not just a group, a number.” Daniels-Wilson also expressed the need for more resources to be allotted towards finding the murderer of these women.
About “800-1,000 women and girls are involved in street-level prostitution in any given year in the Chicago metropolitan area,” according to a 2001 report by the Center for Impact Research titled, “The Prostitution of Women and Girls in Metropolitan Chicago: A Preliminary Prevalence Report.”
Their lifestyle, experts say, places them at risk, which ultimately could cause some of them to a fate as the murdered 51 Chicago women asphyxiated since 2001, according to the Alexandria, Virginia-based Murder Accountability Project, which has used as a computer algorithm to determine the murders to be the work of at least one serial killer.
“If we put a face, a story to these women they don’t seem so invisible anymore,” Myers-Powell said. “Whatever the lifestyle these ladies had, they were still human beings. They were still moms, daughters, cousins. Somebody loved them.”
“Our passion is everything,” Myers-Powell said.
Their passion shows through the work they do. They are available at all hours of the day. They are in the streets. They are spreading awareness. They are helping and supporting. They are hoping to make a difference in the city of Chicago.
“That’s where our hearts were. We saw things that were going on in the community that were being normalized as if it was okay and we knew this was not okay. We wanted to make a change,” Myers-Powell said.