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Black Mother Struggles to Avoid Sex Work in South LA to Survive 
By Jasmyne Cannick   
Published June 9, 2022

Poverty warning message concept. Most common global problem poster design

 

 

Everyday the streets of Los Angeles are filled with people suffering from unbearable loss.  The kind of loss that makes you simply lose your mind.  Loss of your job, loss of your home, loss of your car, loss of your family, loss of your standing in this world, and worse of all, the loss of hope.   

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 It’s the kind of repeated letdowns that tip people over the edge — whether that edge be drugs, alcohol, or even suicide.  Some of these people we see talking to themselves or to someone we can’t see.   

 They lie motionless on the ground, or are screaming at the top of their lungs because they are angry.  But, there are a lot of these people we can’t see — until it’s too late. 

 The proliferation of low-income single adults and families living in weekly motels as a last resort to keep a roof over their head is seldom discussed. I call them the “hidden homeless.”   

 

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They’re indoors so we don’t see them in the way that we see the people living in tent encampments on the street.  But, let me tell you that these motel rooms are not five-star accommodations.   

 They are small, dark, foul smelling, dirty, moldy, have beds with bugs and often roaches–and that’s inside.  Outside, these motels are prone to sex work, drug use, and violence.  Ask me how I know. 

Women Sitting On Beds In Homeless Shelter

 

And if living in a one-room motel room takes a toll on you as an adult, imagine what it’s doing to the children who call it home. 

 The struggle is real. 

 While many of these same low-income adults and families can’t afford the cost to move-in to more permanent housing — let alone the monthly rent in Los Angeles once they get in — they spend thousands a month to pay a weekly rate for substandard housing conditions. 

 This is Monica’s story, but it’s the story of so many women right now in Los Angeles. 

 

She’s Doesn’t Want to Be A Prostitute Again 

 “That’s what I don’t want to have to return to doing,” 45-year-old Monica Brown says to me on the verge of tears while looking at a barely dressed woman gingerly strolling down Figueroa in South Los Angeles.  It’s a mild sunny Monday afternoon and Monica is trying to gather up the few belongings that she and her six-year-old son Nicholas have left after being evicted.  Everything is stuffed into two duffle bags. 

 The “that” Monica is referring to sex work — and in her case, survival sex work.   

 You see, for almost a year Monica and Nicholas had room to breathe. Monica had been given assistance to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Lancaster after living in a Downey motel room for three-and-a-half years.  

 At six-years old, more than half of her son’s life has already been spent living in dark, dusty smelly motel rooms and a year later, he’s back with her living in one. 

 With a smile on his face, Nicholas says to me, “I know how to open the door,” referring to the key card I am holding for his mother. 

 Monica’s landlord evicted her and another tenant in February to use the apartment for a family member — or so the landlord claims.  Monica doesn’t believe the landlord. 

 “I told HOPICS that I was being evicted,” Monica explains.  “I will never forget. It was November 10th when I got the notice from the landlord that I had to be out by February 8th.” 

 HOPICS or the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System assisted Monica with finding the apartment last year. It was the first time in more than three years that she wasn’t on the street or living in a motel room. 

 “I felt like life had started over for me,” remembered Monica. “I felt like everything that I went through — that I can live, I can start over. God gave me a second chance.   

 “He didn’t just leave me out to the wolves.  I can make up for time and what we went through in the shelters and motel rooms. I was very happy and very grateful. Nothing mattered prior to that date. I had a new future.” 

 Prior to moving to the Antelope Valley, Monica had occupied a Downey motel room through a program with HOPICS.  Monica, like many families, had taken to living in motel rooms as a last resort to avoid being on the street. 

 

Placement Girls 

 I first met Monica when we were both placed in the same foster home in Carson.  She was a very pregnant 17-year-old when my social worker picked me up from MacLaren Hall Children’s Center and brought me there.  At the time, Monica was pregnant with her first child – a daughter she named Lily. 

 In the beginning, I wouldn’t say that we were friends. I was 15-years-old and scared as hell of her.  She was everything I wasn’t.  Loud, hood, somewhat of a bully and made it clear that even though she was pregnant, she could and would kick my ass.  Needless to say, she had her own bedroom while the rest of us shared rooms. 

 This was the mid 1990s, so when Monica aged out of the system with a baby, she was quickly transferred from the Department of Children and Family Services into the welfare program where she received a Section 8 housing voucher, food stamps and a monthly welfare allowance.  It wasn’t too long after she gave birth to her daughter that she had a son.  By the time of the births, neither father was in the picture. 

 When you spend time in placement like we did, you tend to move differently through the world and that was true of Monica.  She hustled.  Even though she had two young children, she worked when she could, usually security jobs.   

 She was a high school dropout, but I never knew Monica to just sit on her ass and do nothing.  Her kids might not have had everything, but they had food, clothes and a roof over their heads.  She made sure of it. 

 At some point when I emancipated from “the system” as we called it, I fell back in with Monica.  For a few years there, as I finished up high school and was still in placement, we were separated, but we managed to reconnect once I was on my own.  She remains one of two women I keep up with that I was in foster care with. 

 There was a time that I babysat for her while she worked and when I needed a place to stay in my late teens, early 20s, it was Monica who let me sleep on her couch. 

 Remember when I said that those of us who spent time in the system moved differently?  In the mid- 90s there were no programs to catch the many young men and women who aged out of the foster care system.  Either you made it or you didn’t and the difference between making it or not was often as basic as having a couch to sleep on at a friend’s place. 

 Monica, like myself, didn’t have any family to rely on for help. 

 She had been in foster care since she was baby. 

 “From what I told, my mom was on drugs,” Monica said.  “I was told that she had cancer and eventually I guess, she started doing drugs.  She didn’t die from the drugs.  She died from cancer.” 

 Monica’s parents died within a year of each other.  Her father was murdered and she is still trying to find out why.   

 The system raised Monica.  So, her hustle was always different because she had two children to take care of and she knew that there was no one else to help her do it.  She also knew that if she failed, the same foster care system she aged out of would gladly take her two Black babies in the blink of an eye. A mother’s hustle is real. 

 I don’t know how she did it, but she did it and before I knew it, we were in our 40s and those two babies I used to babysit were grown adults with children of their own. 

 There was a point where I had gone my way in life and she had gone hers, but through the years, we would make sure to check in with one another periodically. 

 I remember how shocked I was to find out that at 40, Monica was pregnant with her third child.  I thought she was done with having children considering the fact that she herself was a grandmother.  At the time she became pregnant, she was living in Bakersfield, had a car, apartment, and had been working at Walmart.  By the end of her pregnancy, she was unemployed and on the verge of homelessness. 

 I don’t know much about that situation except that the child’s father was in prison and like the two before him, was not going to be in the picture in terms of raising his child. 

 I couldn’t tell you what exactly happened in Bakersfield that put my friend into homelessness.  Whatever it was, the stress of it was written all over her face and body.  Add the fact that she was dealing with untreated bipolarism and other mental health issues and it was a perfect storm — a storm that six years later is still ravaging her. 

 

The Spiral 

 The next time I would hear about Monica it would be in 2019 when her adult children reached out to me because she had gone missing somewhere in South Los Angeles with the baby.  I don’t know how I found her, but I did.  Somewhere off Main Street in the 60s.   

 What I do remember crystal clear is that the man she was with was not too pleased to see me parked outside asking for the baby and asking a million and one questions to a very disheveled, almost unrecognizable to me, Monica. 

 She was a hot mess and even though she didn’t say it, I could tell from her energy that she was concerned about the man’s reaction to me and her oldest son just showing up there. 

 My friend never had a drug problem, but what she did have was untreated mental health issues. I know you’re thinking — her and half of Los Angeles. Right?  Right.   

 ]But couple untreated mental health issues with the loss of your job, home and dignity and that is the current recipe of disaster that is being cooked up and served throughout the City of Angels.  And while she’s never confided in me about drug use, based on what I have seen, I am pretty sure she was doing drugs.  I probably would have been too if I had to do what she did to make it. 

 She did eventually break free of that man and got enrolled in the city’s HOPICS program with her son, Nicholas. I know on a couple of occasions I dropped her off at a building near San Pedro and Slauson in South Los Angeles.  She could be a fierce advocate for herself when she had to be — when she had the strength to be. 

 I made many visits to that Downey motel room to visit them and to help when I could.  When her big break came three-and-a-half years later and she was finally moved into permanent housing, I was so happy for her.   

 Even though it was really far away, it wasn’t a motel room.  It was a place where she and her son could breathe free air.  Nicholas could finally go to school and he desperately needed sunlight, to play in grass like other kids his age and eat food that didn’t come from the liquor store or a fast food restaurant. 

 

The Pursuit of Happiness 

 She moved in with very little.  Eventually, she was able to get assistance with furniture and she started to make that apartment a home for them both. 

 Monica also started on a path to get help for bipolarism.  She was doing all of the things to try to get back up on her feet.  Unfortunately, many of these programs put into place to allegedly help women like her gave her the runaround. 

 Finding a job wasn’t easy for her because of the issue of childcare.  It remains to this day one of her biggest obstacles.  She would get jobs in Los Angeles and have to find childcare that could accommodate her schedule and her commute on public transportation back and forth from the Antelope Valley. 

 Her life was far from perfect, as far from perfect as she was — but she was out of that motel room and for the first time in a longtime I saw that my friend had hope. 

 

When It Rains it Pours 

 I didn’t hear from her for awhile until recently when she reached out to me after running out of money to pay for her motel room that she was back to living in again.  She was in South Los Angeles after HOPICS was unable to help her with another apartment by the deadline for her to move out of her Lancaster apartment. 

 “I told HOPICS in November of last year I was being kicked out,” Monica explains.  “They show up on February 8 and take me and my son to a shelter in South Los Angeles.  The next day they took me back to Lancaster and told me that I could only take what could fit in their two vans.  I lost everything.” 

 Monica’s time at the shelter came to an abrupt end after she was involved in an altercation with another woman. I wasn’t there and I know there are always two sides to a story, but what I do know is that living in these shelters is like among powder kegs — it can pop off at any time. 

 You have to remember that everyone in these shelters is going through something.  No one is alright.  I remember how it was for me in placement living in group homes with five or 11 other angry girls I didn’t know.  We were teenagers, these are grown women with grown women problems.  

 After being kicked out of the shelter, with her son, Monica was able to crash with her oldest son for a few weeks before that too was no longer an option. 

 And before you judge Monica or her oldest son, let me say this.  This country is made up of fractured families suffering from all kinds of unhealthy or estranged relationships for various reasons. 

 As I once explained, everyone didn’t have Clair Huxtable for a mother.  And by the same token, every mother didn’t have Theo for their son. 

 My mother could call me right now and the odds of me even bothering to answer the phone are so not in favor. 

 After HOPICS recommended that Monica take her six-year-old son to the L.A. Mission and call a domestic violence hotline, she used every last dollar she had to pay $130 a day and $140 on the weekends to live in a motel room.  

 Which brings me back to the beginning of Monica’s story.  Monica doesn’t want to return to survival sex work to pay for a motel room for her and her son, but she will do it if there’s no other option she says. 

 When someone says to you with tears in their eyes that they don’t want to resort to selling their body just to keep a roof over their head, it really puts L.A.’s homelessness crisis into another perspective. 

 Monica’s story is the real story of so many women in Los Angeles right now.  These are the people L.A.’s mayoral candidates are not talking about or to – the people teetering on the edge of sanity. The “hidden homeless.”  The Monica’s. 

 I have literally watched my friend age 20 years in the past six years.  The stress of it all has definitely taken a toll on her.  Her son is going to have issues for sure. He’s been raised in a dark motel room for much of his life, eating fast food. He’s already overweight and he’s not in school. 

 Some would say that he needs to be taken away from her and put into placement and I would disagree.  First, I think my friend would kill herself if her son were put into foster care, especially after what she experienced growing up in the system.  Second, taking kids is not always the answer. Helping the parents should be first. 

 And before you see her or someone else like her on the evening news for doing something desperate — I felt it was important to share Monica’s story to understand how a person gets to the point in their life where they would contemplate sex work as a means of survival and how our local government contributes to the misery that women like Monica are experiencing. 

 I have watched Monica call 211 — a free telephone number providing access to local community services, and get no help at all.  I have watched her be told she needs a referral to get help for her mental health crisis – a referral from a doctor that she doesn’t have because she can’t get a referral.  

 I have seen turned away from COVID relief programs that were designed specifically for families like hers.  Every phone call she makes, she’s told someone will call her back and no one ever does. 

 I don’t know how much more she can take before she just can’t take it anymore. Honestly, I am surprised she’s held on this long.  I don’t think I would have.  I would have been the Black Jasmyne to Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine sitting on the bench talking to herself after suffering a mental breakdown. 

What I do know is that Monica is living in a motel room with a six-year-old and eating cheap fast food to survive. I know that nearly everything she owns today is stuffed into two navy blue duffle bags and that check out time is 11 a.m.   

She told me that she feels like she owes it to Nicholas to keep fighting because of the life she gave him. 

“I owe my baby,” Monica says. I put him through so much.”

She also confides in me that if it weren’t for Nicholas, she probably would have given up a long time ago. 

Monica’s story isn’t unique except that for me, I know her.  Her story however, is the story of so many mothers and fathers living in motel rooms from week-to-week and in some cases, day-to-day. They are L.A.’s hidden homeless. 

Monica needs both a short-term and long-term solution to housing for her and Nicholas.  Short-term, she needs to have the money to keep a roof over her head and food for her son until she can find long-term permanent housing again.   

Monica also needs access to all of the programs that the city and county claim to have in place to catch mothers like Monica. Monica’s story puts a glaring spotlight on the serious gaps in help that L.A.’s Black families receive. 

In the short term, I have organized a GoFundMe campaign to support Monica and Nicholas until more sustainable accommodations can be made. And because I don’t ask anyone to do anything I, myself, am not willing to do, I have paid $520 for her to have a roof for the past four nights.   

Monica gave me permission to share her story, partly, I think out of frustration, but also because she wants the powers-that-be to really know what life is like on the streets of Los Angeles.  It’s hard to focus on who to vote for when you have no permanent address and you are struggling day-to-day to keep a roof over your head.  

The system put into place to help women like Monica is broken.  It’s not helping them and is actually doing more harm than good.  The irony in all of this is that while my friend can’t get help to house or feed her and her child, if she steps one foot out of line both of them will have permanent housing courtesy of the Los Angeles County jail and the Department of Children and Family Services. 

This is Los Angeles. 

A GoFund Me has been setup to help Monica and Nicholas at https://www.gofundme.com/manage/help-keep-homeless-mother-and-child-housed.  

 

 

 

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