Tracy Dudley's Story of Redemption on the Streets of Houston

By Keri Blakinger 04/11/17

The 47-year-old former sex worker hands over her phone number with a gentle warning: “I used to be out here,” she says. “You know you’re not gonna stay that cute if you stay out here.”

Tracy Dudley
“This is real personal for me."

Tracy Dudley is on the lookout as she cruises through one of the seediest spots in Houston, passing trashy motels and dive bars before she finds her mark: a young woman in suggestive clothes, trolling Telephone Road looking to make a quick buck.

The woman looks scared as Dudley’s car approaches, but she relaxes when the 47-year-old former sex worker hands over her phone number with a gentle warning: “I used to be out here,” she says. “You know you’re not gonna stay that cute if you stay out here.”

Everything Dudley knows about street life comes from hard-won experience. Now 14 years sober, the one-time Telephone Road regular is back at her old haunt, running a crisis intervention center and helping women get off the street and out of the lifestyle.

After working as a jail chaplain and a recovery coach, in 2012 Dudley founded Project Girls, a crisis intervention center housed at the site of Blue Top Motel, a former sex work hotspot shuttered years ago.

“This is real personal for me,” Dudley said. “This is a very forgotten about place.”

A native Houstonian, Dudley grew up near the Hobby Airport, just a few miles from the chaos of Telephone Road.

“Life before drugs was in a big beautiful home,” she said. “I had anything and everything I wanted.” True, she didn’t have a birth mother in the picture; her biological mom ran off to Oregon when Dudley was young. But instead Dudley was reared by her grandmother, in a house full of love.

Even so, the spindly redhead teen struggled.

“I was very uncomfortable for many, many years of my life before I was introduced to cocaine and bud,” she said. “Then all of a sudden, when I turned 19 or 20 years old, having red hair and being 6-foot tall wasn’t so bad.”

She didn’t start right in with the crack. At first, it was heavy drinking and a party lifestyle. Working at local bars, she earned the moniker “Cadillac Red” after the subject of a Judds song celebrating a wild woman.

“I was a fish, drinking every dude under the bar,” she said.

But eventually Cadillac Red got introduced to white powder. And by her early 20s, Dudley had fallen in love with crack.

“That’s when it really started spiraling out of control for me,” she said. “I was becoming more and more addicted, and I just started going to motels and staying a little longer each time.”

She eventually became an IV drug user and started bouncing in and out of jail and prison.

“I was shooting so much dope I was dying out here,” she said. “I was the girl on the street that the [other] girls on the street were like, ‘Dang.’”

Her last arrest was in 2003, when she walked into yet another sting.

“I got booked back into jail - nothing new for me,” she said. “But I believe God intervened. I should have gone back to prison with my record. But they ended up giving me 90 days.”

And by the end of that final stint in the slammer, Dudley knew she wanted something different. With her release date drawing near, she called her grandmother for help.

“I was like, 'If you don’t come pick me up, I’m not going to make it,'” she said.

So her grandmother - a woman Dudley pushed away through years of heavy drug use - scooped her up from the county jail and drove her to a three-year drug treatment program the next day.

It was a turning point.

“I went in at 33 and when I graduated and walked the stage, I was 36. And for the first time ever in my whole adult life, I had my own place, my own car, my own cell phone and my own little checkbook and had money in the bank,” she said. “For the very first time, I was standing on my own two feet.”

And she wanted to help other women do the same. She started working for a prison ministry, and instantly felt at home. Eventually she became a full-time chaplain at Harris County Jail, gaining local recognition for her efforts to connect incarcerated women with their families.

But in 2012, staff turnover brought an end to the jail job.

“God shut the door to that chapter in my life,” she said. “I was devastated.” But eventually Dudley pulled herself together and started thinking about other ways to help - with a push from what she sees as divine intervention.

“God said, ‘Ok now I want you to go back to Telephone Road and I want you to put your headquarters on Telephone Road and I want you to develop a crisis intervention team and it will be called Project Girls.'”

So Dudley launched an organization that, over the course of a few years, grew into exactly what she hoped it would be: a crisis center at her old stomping grounds.

The cottage rooms where Dudley used to run wild are long gone. But the main office still stands, an unimpressive building with a taco truck on the side and run-down bars nearby. In one small part of the building, Dudley greets women in need in a brightly colored office packed with extra hygiene supplies and clothes.

And in a bizarre twist of fate, she now partners with the vice squad that used to bust her.

“The Tracy Dudleys of the world are so important,” said Captain Dan Harris, who oversees the Houston Police Department’s Vice Division.

Harris first met Dudley after he took over the division about two years ago. Along with a bevy of other victim assistance groups, Dudley reached out to ask how she could help.

“Over time we started working with each other and I asked if she would come out to some of our operations where we were going to make arrests,” he said. Dudley isn’t there to prevent any arrests; she’s just hoping to offer help to women looking to make a change in life.

“Even though we have to make the arrest, I want somebody out there to talk to that woman about the social services available to her,” Harris said. “Tracy talks to these women right there on the street after we’ve put the handcuffs on them. She can relate to them because she knows where they’re coming from. She can give them a little bit of hope.”

When she’s not tagging along with the police, Dudley offers workshops and community events, hands out deodorant and hygiene supplies to women working the street and offers whatever help she can to distressed sex workers who call her in the midst of a 3 a.m. crisis.

Last fall, the rehab she credits for her present-day success named her Community Leader of the Year at their annual fall luncheon.

In January, she spearheaded a candlelight vigil to remember the victims of sex trafficking. In a large, vacant building behind the notorious erstwhile motel, Dudley offered a presentation about her own life and how she turned it around. Women - some sober and some still out on the streets - turned up to call out the names of those who’ve died along Telephone road.

“Many people in this room tonight are survivors of this very property,” she told the crowd, which included a smattering of supportive Houston police officers.

“And now we have turned this into our crisis center."

But Dudley has bigger dreams for her upstart intervention organization. Some day, she’d like to have bedrooms for women to stay for a fews days and dry out until there’s space at whatever rehab she finds for them.

It’s a harm reduction approach to sex work that ultimately will require more space and more funding. But Dudley has faith it’ll all work out in the end. The problem’s not going anywhere, and Dudley knows she’s in it for the long haul.

“Since like the 1950s prostitution has been happening on Telephone Road,” she said, “and it’ll probably be happening till Jesus comes back.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.