Clarification: An edit has been made to this story regarding the care of Bambi Ortiz's two children when she did not have guardianship.
Bambi Ortiz walks the street of east Tulsa on Sunday nights.
She gives some women she meets a coat if they need one. Other women know her as the “condom lady.”
The 41-year-old gives all women she encounters a pamphlet from Domestic Violence Intervention Services, where she works as a cook.
She dreams of someday driving a van with her nonprofit’s logo on the side. In her dream, the van is stocked with nonperishable food and clothing that she can give to sex workers she meets on the streets.
“It’s not that I’m trying to save them, but I am trying to show them that there is a better life,” Ortiz said.
That’s because, less than three years ago, Ortiz was right there with them.
In 2016, Ortiz was arrested in connection with the theft of a rifle from an east Tulsa motel room. Police at the time described her as a longtime sex worker.
It was not her first arrest. In fact, she was facing her fifth stint in prison.
“I’ve been in a lot of trouble,” Ortiz said. “I should be dead, like several times over.”
Today, Ortiz summarized the low points of her life that led up to her 2016 arrest and a life-changing decision.
Ortiz endured family sexual abuse at an early age, she said.
When she was 13, she said her mother signed away her parental rights to Ortiz, placing her in the state foster care system. After bouncing from foster home to foster home, she landed in a group home in downtown Tulsa, where she ran away. It wasn’t long before she found herself alone at a downtown adult shelter.
It was there, Ortiz said, she met her first pimp, who trafficked her.
“He was like, ‘Oh, I’ll take care of you. I won’t let anybody mess with you,’ ” Ortiz recalled. “They tell you anything, plus I was just a child.
“A week later he had me on crack and he was beating me on the head with two by fours,” Ortiz said. “He would never let me out of his sight. I was under his control for like four years.
“I’ve been raped I don’t know how many times.”
As the years went by, Ortiz’s life continued to spiral as the arrests for prostitution and minor drug crimes piled up.
At one point, she estimates she had a $400 to $500 per day crack habit.
Her sister assumed temporary guardianship of her two children.
In 2012, Ortiz is believed to be first person in the state convicted under a little-used felony statute of soliciting prostitution within 1,000 feet of a church or school.
She received a two-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to that crime. The stint in prison, like those prior, failed to dissuade her from resuming her former drug-addicted life.
So when Ortiz was arrested again in 2016, this time for the theft of the rifle, it looked as if she would be heading back to prison.
“I can’t keep going to prison,” Ortiz said she thought. “Prison was not helping me. Obviously. I’ve been there four times.”
While Ortiz did earn her GED during one prison stint, she said she received no treatment for her mental health and drug issues.
“You go to prison, you come back out a better criminal is what you do,” Ortiz said. “You don’t do anything to change behavior. There’s so much drugs in prison it’s ridiculous.”
Prosecutors agreed to offer Ortiz a chance to avoid prison if she enrolled in Women In Recovery, a program that offers treatment in lieu of incarceration to women facing drug-related crimes.
Ortiz said it was an easy decision. She entered the Women in Recovery program in November 2016.
She called the intensive therapy program “amazing” and noted that it changed her life.
She graduated in July.
“It’s just sad that you have to catch a charge or be facing prison to get in the program,” Ortiz said. “I really wish there were other treatment options.”
Before completing the Women in Recovery program, Ortiz was hired as a cook at DVIS.
DVIS Vice President of Safe Housing Services DeJon Knapp said Ortiz came to work for DVIS about a year ago through a partnership the organization has with Women in Recovery.
“She had lots of great cheerleaders at Women in Recovery and we really felt like it would be a great fit,” Knapp said.
“She is really passionate about connecting with people through food and just one of the most humble, hard-working, easy-to-talk-to, easy-to-connect-with, compassionate people I’ve had the pleasure to work with,” Knapp said.
Life continues to get better for Ortiz. Her youngest child has moved back in with her.
“I never imagined that 2½ years later that I am doing the things I’m doing today,” Ortiz said.
In 2017, Ortiz launched a mobile outreach program aimed at combating sex trafficking and providing assistance to sex workers. She is seeking 501(c)(3) status for her organization, Angel Against Sex Trafficking, a title that borrows from her street name. She launched a website — AngelAgainstTrafficking.com — that details her story and plans for the nonprofit.
Ortiz said she has applied for a local $30,000 grant that she will use to purchase a van for her mobile outreach program.
“I am not going to give up on these women,” Ortiz said. “If I have resources to get them out of that lifestyle then I will.”
Ortiz said she encountered a woman on a recent chilly Sunday who was wearing only a thin shirt.
“I gave her a coat and I hugged her and said if nobody’s told you today, I love you,” Ortiz said. “They are still people. There’s so many of them that don’t ask for that life.”