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Off the Streets, Into a New Life : Rehabilitation: Discipline and prayer are the keys to one couple's quest to help prostitutes and addicts.

October 13, 1991|RANDYE HODER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Angel was walking briskly along a run-down stretch of Olympic Boulevard near Georgia Street in downtown Los Angeles, wearing a short turquoise skirt, when John Benton yelled out to her from his big black Mercury.

"Hey, how are you? Can I give you one of these?" he said, leaning out the car window and handing her a pamphlet titled, "If you want out . . ."

In a crisp white shirt and dark tie, the 57-year-old minister looked out of place in the seedy neighborhood populated by drug addicts, dealers, prostitutes and pimps.

"Hey, I know you, Mr. Benton," Angel said, smiling broadly and revealing lipstick-stained teeth. "I met you in Mira Loma" County Jail in Lancaster. "Do you remember me?"

After a moment he did. "When are you going to come home?" he said, referring to the Walter Hoving Home, a rehabilitation center for female prostitutes, drug addicts and alcoholics that he and his wife, Elsie, run in Pasadena.

"I've thought about getting help," Angel said as she clutched the pamphlet. "But when I got out of jail, I just came back to the streets."

It is on the streets--Main Street, Olympic Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard and Spring Street--that the Bentons find many of the women they bring back to live in one of two adjacent houses on Madison Avenue.

The homes, tucked off the street, fit unobtrusively in a mixed-use area just west of Pasadena's busy Lake Avenue commercial district. Their green lawns are shaded by maple trees; a swinging chair hangs from the front porch of one of the houses. They are a stark contrast to the squalid hotels where many of the women once worked and lived.

"We've created a homelike atmosphere," Benton said. "But we try to make boundaries between a homey environment and a structured environment. Our girls can't just come here and hang out."

The 15 women who live for free at the Walter Hoving Home keep a strict schedule. They wake up at 6:30 a.m., clean their rooms, hold morning devotions, eat breakfast and pray again. Benton is an Assemblies of God minister but said the home is not affiliated with any religion.

By 9:40 a.m. they're at school--a converted garage in the back of the main house--where they study the Bible and learn to cope with anger and depression. They also read books such as "Building Your Self Image."

After lunch there are more lessons; each woman progresses at her own speed through a regimen of religious and self-help audio tapes and books. Then the women spend an hour doing chores such as mowing the lawn, trimming hedges, mopping, vacuuming, dusting and laundry. In the late afternoon, there is an hour set aside for free time or counseling.

Then, on any given night after dinner, the women go back to school or attend church or Bible study. On some nights they are free to write letters, read or chat. They can even watch a home video, as long as it has a Christian message. Lights are out by 10 p.m.

The women can live at the home for up to a year before the Bentons help them strike out on their own. During their first year out of the home, the Bentons keep track of their progress through a series of reports filed by the women, their ministers and employers.

The Bentons say their tracking has shown that 80% of the about 500 women who completed a one-year stay in the program in New York and California have stayed off the streets.

Former residents include women who have gone on to become secretaries, a real estate saleswoman, an apartment manager and the owner of a printing company.

"Some people said I was too old to change," said Sandra Russell, 42, a recovering alcoholic and prostitute who has been at the home almost six months. Russell, who has spent much of her adult life on the streets or in jail, added: "When I first came here it was hard. I wasn't used to people telling me what to do. I had a very bad attitude."

Benton said most of the women are angry when they first arrive. And most rebel against the rigorous schedule and tough rules: No smoking, no walking barefoot and no television, except for occasional sports or the news.

"It's hard because you can get disciplined for slipping up and cussing," said Starr Black, who at 19 is the home's youngest resident.

The disciplines range from extra work to losing such privileges as trips to the mall. "Sometimes I have problems and I want to do drugs or have a beer," Black said. "But here you can't do that. You have to face your problems."

The Bentons are Seattle natives who met in kindergarten and have spent their married life in the ministry. They have three grown children, two of whom are missionaries.

Their home is named for the late Walter Hoving, former chairman of Tiffany & Co. in New York. Hoving, whom the Bentons met socially, helped them raise money 25 years ago to buy a Garrison, N.Y., estate for their first home, which houses 60 women. The West Coast branch has been open since 1984 and is funded by foundations, churches and individual donations.

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