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Off the Streets : Project Provides Prostitutes With Pathway to Self-Esteem, New Life

March 05, 1989|JIM MACAK | Macak is a Studio City free-lance writer.

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."

Optional Religion

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.

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.

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."

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.

Not Ready to Leave

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.

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.

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.

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