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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Offering an Exit for Women on a Dead-End Street

January 23, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Sophia used to work Sepulveda Boulevard. She says she has been arrested half a dozen times, beaten by tricks, handcuffed by a customer posing as a cop. At 19, this young woman with luminous brown eyes and dark hair that falls in corkscrew curls around her face seems tough, but the facade is as fragile as porcelain.

"I guess I have a little girl inside of me saying, 'I can't do this anymore,' " says Sophia, who grew up in a small Northern California town. "I want to be a normal person. I want to be OK."

One morning last November, she says, after spending the night with a trick who told her that she just didn't belong on the streets, something clicked. She sneaked away from her pimp and took a cab to a homeless women's shelter.

Through the shelter, she found the Rev. Ann Hayman.

Hayman is a Presbyterian cleric--her ministry is the Mary Magdalene Project, a home for women ready to come in off the streets. She becomes a surrogate mother to the former prostitutes, who spend up to two years in the comfortable four-bedroom Reseda house. Women are required to attend therapy, to learn a job skill that will allow them to sustain themselves when they leave, to work at least part-time and to save 80% of what they earn.

It turns out, though, that two years in the home is not always enough to prepare for life in the straight world.

"It's become obvious to us in the last several years that the women who leave here continue to need some support from us," says Judy Ames, the project's executive director. She and Hayman hope to purchase an apartment complex nearby, a place where project graduates can make a smoother transition, where rents will be set according to their ability to pay. Ames estimates the new place will cost $1 million; $300,000 of that has been raised and set aside.

The earthquake hit the Reseda house hard--windows blew out, pipes snapped, the water heater jumped off its base. Hayman was badly bruised when a bookcase fell on her as she lay in bed.

As a result, Ames and project volunteers will spend the foreseeable future rustling up donations and labor to repair the house, which is privately funded and costs about $350,000 a year to run.

In 13 years, Hayman reckons, nearly 130 women have turned turn their lives around with the Mary Magdalene Project's help. Hayman knows, she says, because they stay in touch.

Ames says that even the ones who return to drugs and alcohol don't usually return to prostitution: "As Ann likes to say, 'We've ruined them for the streets.' "

*

The exchange of sex for money resonates deeply and uncomfortably in our society--witness the extraordinary over-coverage last year of Heidi Fleiss, alleged mother hen to a flock of high-priced call girls. With that kind of story making headlines--women servicing politicians and entertainers for $1,500 a night--it's easy to forget the plight of the those who walk the streets, risking health, safety and arrest to earn money they will never see, money that enriches only their pimps.

How do they get there?

"All of our women have been victims of child abuse and most of them victims of incest," Ames says. "Not everyone abused as a child becomes a prostitute, but every prostitute has been abused as a child."

That may be hard to verify, but certain other characteristics are not. For instance, Ames says, most of the project's clients are in their mid-20s and have been usually been working the streets for about 10 years. More than half have drug and alcohol problems. Probably 70% have children they have no claim to anymore. All are burned out.

"Most of them have tried marriage to get out, but they end up marrying tricks and this does not make for what I would call healthy, wholesome marriages," Hayman says.

"The issue, really, is low self-esteem. Prostitution deals more with women's dependency issues than anything else. We live in a culture that says if you don't have men in your life, you're nothing, and some of us have seen that modeled by our mothers in ways that just kind of take your breath away."

*

The story Sophia tells, Hayman says, is similar to the ones she hears every day from women who come to her for help.

Sophia's parents divorced when she was 8. She says she remembers an uncle molesting her when she was 11 or 12. The following year, she says, she discovered sex.

"I was real sexually active my freshman year in high school," she says. "We used to hang around a park that was near a bar. A man just approached me one day about turning tricks. I was 14 or 15. I ended up going with him, he gave me $50. My friends didn't know."

After that, she says, she quit school and began fighting with her mother, even once pulling a knife on her.

Later, she moved in with her father and went back to school. But they fought, and eventually she moved out.

A friend, she says, introduced her to a pimp in Oakland. Homeless, she moved in with the pimp's sister, she says, who shared the same line of work.

A short time later, she says, she met the pimp who brought her to L.A.

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