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Project Provides Pathway to Getting Off the Streets

<i> Macak is a Studio City free-lance writer. </i>

Valerie worked as a prostitute for 16 years before arriving at the Mary Magdalene Project, a shelter and rehabilitation home in Reseda. Her reception by the residents, other former prostitutes, was not enthusiastic.

“My first day there, one of the girls threatened to put my head through the china cabinet. . . . I bolted out of the door and ran down the street. I went two blocks before I realized I had nowhere else to go. This was the last stop. So I had to come back and face it.”

The Mary Magdalene Project, one of the few programs of its kind in the country and one of only two in Los Angeles County, offers long-term care and rehabilitation for prostitutes. Up to six can live at the home.

The Rev. Ann Hayman, 39, director of the project since it was established in 1980, said more than 100 prostitutes have passed through her front door.

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Some of them don’t stay long, unable to live in a structured environment or unwilling to give up drugs or alcohol. But of the two-thirds who completed at least six months of job training and therapy, Hayman said, only two returned to prostitution. The rest have taken such jobs as secretary, bus driver, beauty salon manager and data collector.

Optional Religion

Hayman, a Presbyterian minister, said she offers nondenominational religious instruction, which is optional. The project, she added, provides no miracle cure, only alternatives for women who had none. “Now they can choose not to be a mess, not to be a prostitute or junkie. . . . That’s all we can reasonably shoot for.”

Valerie praised Hayman “as the most wonderful woman I have ever met,” but said the year and a half she spent with her in job training, rehabilitation and therapy was not a sojourn in paradise. “The hardest thing for me was dealing with the other women. You get a bunch of ex-hookers together and their self-esteem is not very good.”

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Lyn, another former prostitute, recalled that her first 30 days at the Reseda home were difficult not because of the other women, but because of the initial restrictions on her time, travel and contact with others outside the home. Adjusting to routine chores was also tough. “I used to live in motel rooms,” she said. “I didn’t worry about cleaning up.”

For Valerie and Lyn--not their real names--the struggle has paid off. Valerie, now 40, “graduated” from the project 3 1/2 years ago. She has an apartment in Granada Hills and works as a waitress. “I live my life with self-respect, and I didn’t have that when I was hooking,” she said.

Lyn, 26, joined the project 14 months ago and continues to live at the home, where both women were interviewed. Though she’s not ready to leave, she said, she realizes that going back to prostitution would be the same as “putting a loaded gun to my head and pulling the trigger.” The Walter Hoving Home in Pasadena, with room for 10 women, is the county’s only other facility offering prostitutes shelter and rehabilitation.

The director of the Hoving Home is a minister with the Assemblies of God, and the program has a stronger religious orientation than the Mary Magdalene Project. After three months in Pasadena, the women who participate are transferred to a home in Garrison, N.Y., for an additional nine months of job training and religious counseling.

Some Alternatives

In Los Angeles, prostitutes can seek assistance from three other groups: Children of the Night, a Hollywood-based program for runaways and teen-age prostitutes; Prostitutes Anonymous, a support group in North Hollywood aimed at those psychologically dependent on prostitution, and Covenant House in Hollywood, an outreach program for young men and women who live on the street, some of whom are prostitutes.

Children of the Night plans to open a 24-bed shelter in September. Covenant House, which opened in November, hopes to build a 60-bed crisis shelter and a 40-bed “rites of passage” shelter for long-term training and rehabilitation.

Anne Donahue, executive director of Covenant House, said these projects, however, won’t be completed for at least a 1 1/2 to two years. In the interim, Covenant House and other agencies can refer young people to the 50-bed Hollywood Shelter Program operated by the Volunteers of America.

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The Mary Magdalene Project, which deals exclusively with prostitutes for long-term rehabilitation, was started 11 years ago by the Rev. Ross Greek, then-minister of the West Hollywood Presbyterian Church.

“The West Hollywood area was loaded with prostitutes. And I felt if we were going to be a church, we had to work with the people who were there,” Greek said. He lobbied the church for funds for a task force and a three-year study, which led to establishment of the Mary Magdalene Project and the purchase of the Reseda home in 1980.

$125,000 Budget

The home has an annual budget of $125,000, which covers mortgage payments, food, clothing, medical expenses and therapy for the women, and Hayman’s $27,000 salary.

A second home, which operates under a similar budget, opened in Santa Ana four years ago. Jerri Rodewald, project administrator, said a third home is expected to open in Pasadena this summer. Another, planned for Hawaii, is a few years off.

The Presbyterian Church provides much of the financial support for the project, but additional help comes from Methodist, Christian, Episcopal and Congregational churches. Corporations and foundations contributed $78,000 last year, and other support comes from individuals and fund-raising projects. (A charity auction Nov. 6 netted the organization about $45,000, Rodewald said.)

Women are referred to the Mary Magdalene Project by judges, attorneys and rehabilitation counselors such as Pat Hartsworn, who works at Sybil Brand Institute.

Hartsworn said Hayman treats the women with dignity. “I’ve had very good feedback from those who’ve been through the program. . . . And you can tell just by the way they talk, dress and carry themselves.”

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Damage Lingers

Valerie and Lyn don’t consider themselves completely clear of the psychological damage that they’ve suffered as prostitutes, and they talked about their past with reluctance and a few tears. But both said they were proud that they broke with the past and credit the project with salvaging their lives.

In one sense, Valerie said, giving up prostitution was similar to quitting drugs and alcohol. “You can’t just turn one trick every once in awhile. You have to give it up completely.” Not that quitting was easy. She said prostitution was the only way she knew how to survive.

“I was really stupid. I made lots of money--about $3,000 a week when I started--and gave it all to my pimp. And I told him: You go look for an apartment, you go talk to the landlord and the phone company. I didn’t know how to do all that. I didn’t think I could function without a man to manage my life. I was just a scared little girl. . . .

“We always lived in nice apartments. But we used to get evicted a lot because my old man used to beat me up, and we’d scream and yell.”

Valerie worked as a prostitute for four years in Manhattan before moving to Los Angeles, where she attracted most of her clients through “massage” advertisements in telephone directories.

Looked for Way Out

After 12 years in Los Angeles, Valerie said, she started looking for a way out. Worried about her alcohol and drug addiction, she joined Alcoholics Anonymous, which indirectly led her to seek help in quitting prostitution.

“After I stopped drinking and using drugs, prostitution became harder because I had nothing to block out those depressing feelings of being with people I didn’t want to be with. One day, I just said, ‘Screw this.’ I’d had it. I didn’t want to hook any more. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. . . . I called Ann and said I wanted to come here. I was ready to go to any length to stop hooking.”

She joined the Mary Magdalene Project five years ago and “graduated” a year and a half later. Valerie said that in addition to therapy and job counseling, she received instruction on the basics: how to pay bills, rent an apartment and live on a budget. “All of this I never thought I could do.”

Since leaving the home, Valerie has worked as a receptionist and hotel reservation clerk. Now she works as a waitress and would like to move to a better job. “I don’t want to be a waitress the rest of my life. And I want to be married before I’m in a wheelchair.”

Her relationship with her parents in the Bronx is better than it was. She calls and writes them. Her parents came for a visit a few years back.

Reunion Planned

Lyn plans a similar reunion. She intends to visit her family in Georgia and retrieve her 7-year-old son, now being cared for by her mother and her 17-year-old sister. “But that’s not going to happen until I’ve laid a foundation here. I want my own apartment, and I want to get my career started--and I’m very serious about that.”

Lyn’s prostitution began when she turned 18 and fell in love with a hustler who forced her to turn her first trick after driving her far away from her home in Augusta. “And then I just started doing it. I was dressing nice, I had money in my pocket and I bought a Cadillac sedan. My family warned me to stop, but I wouldn’t listen.”

Lyn followed her pimp to Southern California and worked the expensive hotels. “I liked the guys in those three-piece suits. I’d go to the top floors of the hotels, where they have the bars overlooking the city, and have a few drinks and wait for someone to offer me a key or a room number.”

She said she also worked the downtown streets of Long Beach--a difficult task because police were often undercover. “In fact, just about every other trick was an undercover.” Prostitution charges piled up, and Lyn ended up spending 90 days at Sybil Brand.

‘You’re So Depressed’

“Being in jail makes you hard, very hard. You’re so depressed. There were no visitors. I stayed by myself on my bunk, and sometimes I read a Bible someone left there. And my pimp, when I got out, he was gone.”

A counselor at Sybil Brand referred Lyn to the Mary Magdalene Project, and she has been there since December, 1987. Lyn attends the West Valley Occupational Center in Woodland Hills, where she is studying typing and medical-office procedures.

She plans to transfer to the North Valley Occupational Center in Mission Hills for a nurse’s aide program. She is also studying for her high school equivalency tests and works part-time at a McDonald’s restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. And she has started a savings account for the first time.

Hayman said all participants are required to enroll in job training programs and to work, which usually means an entry-level job. About 80% of their earnings are held in savings accounts for use after they graduate from the project. At that point, they are set up in an apartment; its furniture and their clothing are donated by various churches. Therapy and some financial support continue.

The project relies heavily on group counseling, individual therapy and classes on interpersonal skills. Church attendance is encouraged, but not required. “To a lot of these women, God is a dirty old man who keeps score and gets revenge,” Hayman said. “We spend a lot of time trying to re-image God and the church.”

Trial and Error

Hayman said much of the project’s method for treating and counseling prostitutes developed through trial and error. “The first year was a total disaster,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. They didn’t know what I was doing. My assumption was that if we cleaned them up and sent them home, they’d be OK. Well, guess again.

“The more women I encountered, the more obvious it became that ‘home’ was the last place in the world they should go because that was the environment that put them out on the streets in the first place. And, of course, we began to bump into things like child abuse and neglect. All these women had this in their backgrounds. . . . And the number of cases of incest was just staggering.”

Hayman said the project changed three or four times in eight years to accommodate this information and to drop or change those programs, rules and arrangements that just didn’t work.

Initially, the length of stay for a woman admitted to the project was six months. Now the term may stretch to two years or longer. A more-structured living arrangement is now spelled out in a covenant that each woman signs before joining the project. For example, beds have to be made before 9 a.m.; bathroom sinks are to be washed out after each use; snacking is restricted before meals.

Standards Set

The covenant spells out acceptable behavior. The verbal abuse that Valerie received her first day at the house five years ago is no longer tolerated. There can be no contact with pimps. Drinking and drug use are forbidden. Personal telephone calls are limited to 10 minutes at a pay phone in the garage.

The covenant sharply restricts the women’s access to family and prior acquaintances. During the 30-day probationary period, “residents may notify family as to their whereabouts in an approved written form. . . ,” the covenant states. After the first 30 days, “contact with family and the nature of that contact will be at the direction of the director and therapists.”

Male and female visitors are welcome “and may be entertained on the ground floor of the house at either specified or arranged times.” But women may not date or be involved in a relationship until the final phases of their participation in the project.

Hayman said the limits put on outsiders are not as difficult as they may seem. “For the most part, every woman who walks through my front door has nothing. They could not pick up the phone and call somebody because there’s just no one there. They will talk about friends, acquaintances and street mates. But there’s nothing intrinsic in all that, nothing that’s lasted, because they move around so much it’s difficult to keep in touch with one another.”

Still, she said, the project doesn’t take chances. “As far as we’re concerned, we tell them: ‘You need to make a break with all that stuff. You cannot live in both worlds. If you’re going to be here, you’re going to concentrate on what’s going on. You cannot go back to people who were part of your prior experience.’ ”

Hit Bottom

Hayman said prostitutes are not going to change unless they want to, and most don’t want to until they really hit bottom. She said this often happens between the ages of 25 and 30 with a traumatic experience involving drugs, alcohol, rape, incarceration or a combination of these.

“What they do when that happens . . . that’s the determining factor. But there are so many women out there who are so badly damaged that we couldn’t even begin to help. You have to function at a fairly high level to be here. And you can’t do that if your brains are fried.”

She said women must demonstrate 90 days of sobriety before being admitted to the project. And if they have an extensive history of drug and alcohol abuse, they have to complete a drug or alcohol program.

Hayman said one relapse is allowed, as long as the women agree to enroll in a drug or alcohol outpatient program. But if they continue to use drugs or alcohol, she said, they’ll be asked to leave. “Actually, my asking them to leave is a moot point. Because, by that time, they don’t want to be here anyway. They’re too uncomfortable.”

Hayman, a native of Idaho, said she was shocked when a friend of hers and a member of Ross Greek’s task force on prostitution first asked her to take on the Mary Magdalene Project. “I was insulted that they would think of me in this context. But they knew me well. What they saw was my energy and sense of humor. They knew I wouldn’t go out and beat ‘em to death with Jesus. That was what they were looking for. . . . And I guess curiosity got me hooked. I wondered what it would be like to do a ministry like this.”

Hayman said she never intended to stay with the project for eight years. “But I think I’ve had more impact on peoples’ lives doing this than I ever did in a parish. And I don’t think there’s anything I could have done that could have possibly been this interesting. I may get tired of it eventually, but at the moment I’m not ready to quit.”


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