Some take up the offer, though the women are suspicious as they enter the air-conditioned office building in Van Nuys.
What’s the catch? Will I be arrested? They ask these questions as they rest on couches and listen to music while someone offers them low-calorie snacks, travel-size toiletries and free condoms.
But this is no trick.
The prostitutes who visit the Mary Magdalene Project’s drop-in center find a place to catch their breath, escape a pimp and, maybe, leave behind “the life,” for good.
“It’s hard to get people to care about prostitutes,” conceded Martin McCombs, executive director of The Mary Magdalene Project, a 30-year-old agency that provides long-term shelter in a Reseda home for women who want to leave prostitution.
“People don’t want them in their neighborhoods, but we see it differently,” McCombs said. “We see them as victims. Some of these women have horrific pasts.”
The recently opened drop-in center on Haskell Avenue is the first of its kind in Los Angeles. Its purpose is to offer a bridge between the pimp-controlled streets and the residential home, where prostitutes seeking a new life can receive counseling and learn new skills, McCombs said.
According to the Mary Magdalene Project, 85 percent of female prostitutes were sexually abused as children. Nearly 80 percent have mental health issues and abuse drugs. And many women who work as prostitutes have three or more children.
The Los Angeles Police Department makes about 1,000 prostitution-related arrests each year in the San Fernando Valley – a figure that has remained flat since the late 1990s.
But with motels, liquor stores and bars serving as a backdrop, the Sepulveda Boulevard and San Fernando Road corridors remain hot spots for street walkers and prostitution-related loitering in the San Fernando Valley. And it recurs in cycles, usually increasing during the summer, when “circuit girls” are trafficked by pimps to Los Angeles from Fresno, Las Vegas, and even as far off as Hawaii.