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A Chance at Renewal After Life on the Street

A rehab program offers housing and job training to help prostitutes change their lives.

July 03, 2006|Stephen Clark | Times Staff Writer

Eleven years of turning tricks to support a cocaine habit had finally caught up with Cathy, who was ready to make a change but didn't know how.

The South-Central Los Angeles resident had lost custody of her two sons and a daughter to foster care, weighed about 98 pounds after losing nearly 100 and had gained notoriety in the legal system after many arrests. Numerous stints in county jails and treatment centers -- along with a few close encounters with death -- had failed to reach her.

Yet in March 1998, after years of homelessness, Cathy got one more chance.

During a felony hearing in a drug-possession case, the judge offered her a choice: five years in a penitentiary or two years in the Mary Magdalene Project, a privately funded rehabilitation program for prostitutes.

The decision was easy.

Cathy entered the program and graduated three years later. She has been living at the program's transitional living center ever since. Cathy, 44, has regained custody of her children and now works as a legal assistant for a law firm. "I never thought I would be on that side of the law," she said, laughing.

"She's an extraordinary woman that reversed the path of her life," said Martin McCombs, executive director of the program. "She typifies some of our proudest outcomes."

For 26 years, the Mary Magdalene Project has sought to turn around the lives of prostitutes by teaching life skills, providing therapy and offering housing and job training in a highly structured program.

The program was founded by the Rev. Ross Greek -- then-pastor of West Hollywood Presbyterian Church -- with a $30,000 grant from a national Presbyterian women's organization. The program still relies on private grants and donations, which can be made at its website, www.mmp.org.

Each year, the program selects several prostitutes who are 18 or older and committed to quitting prostitution. Before starting, they must go through detoxification. Then, for two or three years, they live in a four-bedroom home in Reseda where they learn how to be parents and role models. They also do volunteer work and find jobs before graduating. To stay, the women must remain sober.

"Your whole life changes because you've been out on the street," Cathy said. "You come to this place where they say you can't have a cellphone, you have to go to meetings, you have to do chores. That's my biggest problem: someone telling me what to do. It was very hard for me. I had to change my life and bow down."

McCombs said it is not known how many women have gone through the program because records weren't kept when it began in 1980. But 245 women have graduated, according to McCombs. Some dropped out and others went back to prostitution -- facing a bleak future. "If they went back to prostitution, it's likely they went back to jail," he said.

McCombs explained why some can't hack it. "It's a very controlling program," he said. "There are expectations, and they come from a great deal of freedom. Change is hard."

Just ask one current resident, who asked not to be identified. The 19-year-old Oklahoma native, who moved to Los Angeles when she was 15, is going through the program again after dropping out the first time. She struggled with making $20 a week, the allowance provided by the program, after pulling in up to $500 a day on the streets.

"I don't think I was ready to give up my life," said the resident, who lasted four months last year before fleeing back to prostitution in Hollywood and other areas of the city.

But after a few months, she wanted to return and escape an abusive relationship with her pimp. "I didn't know what I had until I didn't have it anymore," she said, explaining that she is safe and cared for in the program while getting an education and building skills. "This is a really wonderful program, and not many women get an opportunity to be here."

Graduates and their families can stay -- as long as they need to -- at a 12-unit apartment building in Van Nuys, a housing facility that celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. It accommodates up to nine families.

"The transitional center really plays a key role in trying to get them on their feet," said Donna Hernandez, program director.

Although it is unclear how many programs like this exist nationwide, observers say only a handful include long-term housing exclusively for former prostitutes. Directors of these programs say the housing provides crucial support as the women learn to live independently.

"You can't change your life in 60 or 90 days," said Patti Buffington, executive director of Genesis House in Chicago, which was founded in the early 1980s. "It's impossible."

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