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Project Shows Hookers a Way Out : Magdalene House in Reseda Plans Branch for Orange County

October 16, 1985|LIZ MULLEN

When she was taking the bus or walking to a job interview, sometimes she would get angry thinking about how she had bought her "old man" a Cadillac Eldorado.

But Vicki didn't think about going back to her old life as a prostitute. She had been trying to stop for years, and she knew the Mary Magdalene Project was her way out.

The Mary Magdalene Project provides shelter, job training and therapy for adult female prostitutes who want to change their life styles. The project, based in Reseda, is gearing up to open a house in Orange County that will accommodate five women and a director, according to Jerri Rodewald, president of the project's board of directors.

Vicki, 37, talked about her experience with the project Sunday during a brunch at the Huntington Harbour Bay and Racquet Club that raised more than $3,000 for the Orange County house, which is expected to open early next year.

"I don't like going around telling people about being an ex-prostitute," said Vicki. But, she added, she does want to tell others about the project that helped her accomplish what she couldn't do on her own.

Vicki, who asked that her last name not be used, "was beat up a lot" and "went to jail a lot" during the 15 years she was a prostitute. She came from a home where she was emotionally abused and started hooking at 19, she said.

"When I started, I was making $3,000 a week. I was making it, but I wasn't keeping it," she said. "I gave it to my pimp. All of it."

Earning $100 an Hour

Vicki usually made $100 an hour working in nightclubs or going to men's hotel rooms, "but there were times I jumped in cars on Sunset Boulevard for anything I could get," she said. "If I was with a pimp and he didn't have any connections in the town, he'd drop me on the street and tell me to start walking."

Vicki is a recovered alcoholic, and she used to get drunk to turn a trick, she said. "I carried a bottle of Asti Spumante in my purse, or I called the customer and asked him to order room service."

She said she felt degraded, ashamed and hated her life, but "I didn't know how to change." She said she often thought she could stop "if I had a strong figure in my life, someone to guide me in some way."

She found that guidance at the Mary Magdalene Project two years ago, she said. When she moved into the shelter in Reseda, she stopped hooking and found a job working as a travel agent in a hotel.

"Right now I'm making $5 an hour, but I feel that I can improve myself in the job arena," she said. "I feel like I'm the best person I've ever been."

85% Success Rate

The project's success rate--the percentage of women who report they haven't returned to prostitution--is 85% for the 49 women who have lived in the Reseda house in the past five years and 100% for the 32 among them who completed the six-month program, said Rodewald.

Rodewald said the Orange County house would be the second such operation in the nation. A search committee is currently looking for a house and an executive director. The project has raised $45,000 toward the 1986 budget of $123,000, she said.

The need for such a program is underscored by statistics on prostitution in Orange County, Rodewald said. In the first 10 months of 1984, there were 397 arrests for prostitution in Anaheim, 254 in Santa Ana and 115 in Garden Grove, she said.

The Orange County project can open as soon as a house and a director are found and the director completes a three-month training session at the house in Reseda. The current board of directors will continue to oversee the operation, said Rodewald, who lives in Huntington Beach.

The Orange County project's search committee has not determined where the house will be, but it must be a four-bedroom home near bus transportation in an area "where rent is affordable" and "there is not a high rate of prostitution," Rodewald said.

The director will receive a salary of $20,000 to $23,000 a year, as well as room and board, and will be required to live at the house five days and five nights a week.

The operation is free for the women who live at the house because most do not have any money when they get there, Rodewald said. The women must work and save at least 80% of their wages so they can rent an apartment when they move out.

Funds are provided by the Presbyterian Church in West Hollywood, which founded the original house, as well as individual donors and fund-raisers. But money is difficult to get, Rodewald said, because the project works with only 10 to 12 women a year. "We're not cost-effective because we don't aim to be. We aim to be successful," she said.

Norma Brandel Gibbs, chairwoman of the project's Orange County task force and a former mayor of both Huntington Beach and Seal Beach, said the size of the project allows the women to get individual counseling so they can find jobs in areas that interest them.

"We'll give them support so they can go to school and find a job," she said. "This is not a moralistic thing. . . . If they want to change, we'll help them."

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