A woman dressed in dark shorts and a tank top with a plunging neckline stands on a corner on Lankershim Boulevard in Sun Valley on a gray early morning. She shifts her weight from side-to-side watching the cars and trucks drive by. It’s 6:30 a.m.
“I’m just trying do what I need to and be done,” the woman said, declining to give her name.
Lankershim Boulevard is a well-known prostitution track prone to u-turns, slow moving traffic, curbside chats and used condoms thrown out on parking lots. Drab warehouses and mechanic shops, a small gritty truck stop, and the ever-busy Interstate 5 highway flank the boulevard. It’s a popular track in the morning hours between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. and again in the evening at sundown. But residents in this area want to change that.
“I’ve gone to McDonald’s to take my son to get something to eat and I’ve seen them sitting out there or being picked up,” said Claudia Garcia, a Sun Valley resident. She said the women use the restaurant bathroom to change or clean themselves.
“That’s kind of sad trying to explain that to my son,” she said.
Dawn Alvarez is a manager at the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission Thrift Store on the corner of Lankershim. Alvarez often closes the store at night and takes the bus home.
“The minute it starts getting dark, you’ll start seeing the cars doing little turns in our parking lot,” she explains. “We’re closed. So it’s not customers, these are the other kind of customers.”
Businesses told their story to the L.A. Daily News about the streetwalkers and johns. The Sun Valley Area Neighborhood Council organized night walks with LAPD and convinced them to launch undercover stings.
LAPD has arrested more than 70 men and women in undercover operations this spring. One john arrested was Mitchell Tharp, 49, an L.A. County Department of Public Works employee. Another was Mark Anthony Morton, a human services aide with the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services.
“A lot of these prostitutes are scandalously dressed. Sometimes they expose themselves to the potential johns,” said Sgt. Jesse Ojeda of LAPD’s vice unit at the Foothill Division.
There are two high schools less than two miles west from Lankershim. And although the prostitutes and johns solicit on the main drag, they usually park in abandon grassy lots within the neighborhood or have a car date right outside houses along the curb.
Police and prosecutors say the majority of the women they arrest on Lankershim are between the ages of 20 and 35. Most have several convictions on their record.
“I did it late in life. I already had kids,” said Cathy Washington. She’s been out of the life for 15 years and now works with the Mary Magdalene Project, a nonprofit in Van Nuys helping other women leave prostitution.
Washington said there are layers behind layers of why women turn to prostitution. For her it was making enough money to survive and being in an abusive relationship.
“The money was good but the dangers,” Washington said. “I have been dismantled and left for dead. You would think that would stop a person but it didn’t at that time.”
If it was money and abuse that got Washington into the life, drugs kept her there.
“I started using because of it. First it started with alcohol to numb my body so I wouldn’t have to think about lying on this person,” she said. “Then cocaine came into play and then after that it was totally crack.”
Since the police stings began this spring, there are fewer women and men soliciting on Lankershim. It’s what usually happens. The women quickly figure out what’s going on and move on to another track such as Sepulveda, Topanga Canyon or Hollywood Boulevards. When the coast is clear, they return cautiously.
It’s a cat-and-mouse game police are well aware of. That’s why city neighborhood prosecutor Aeylet Feiman say long term solutions are needed.
“We trying to have the lighting increased. We are looking at parking restrictions. No stopping zones,” she said.
On a Thursday night at dusk, a group of 25 Sun Valley residents march up Lankershim Boulevard to San Fernando Road with signs in hand chanting, “Familias si, Prostitutas no!”
“This is a street that's heavily traveled by trucks and so is Lankershim and those are transients and so that business will always be here for prostitutes,” said Mike O’Gara, vice president of the Sun Valley Area Neighborhood Council.
Just as he finishes his sentence the driver of an 18-wheeler honks his horn obliviously at the protest cheering them on. O’Gara shrugs his shoulders.
“And that’s why we suffer with it,” he said.