The Figueroa Corridor, also called The Stroll, consists of approximately 3 miles along South Figueroa Street from around 48th St. to 73rd. The Corridor has dozens of motels, liquor stores, churches, laundromats, and the Open Arms Community Health and Service Center, where a sky-blue mural splashes across a wall with the phrase “The Greatest Good is What We Do For One Another.”
On April 22, 2023, Los Angeles City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto (speaking to people on the other side of the city at the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils) made it clear that she would target the Corridor.
Five months later, Feldstein Soto followed up her promise to crackdown on sex trafficking and prostitution with a civil lawsuit against the New Gage Motel, using the century-old Red Light Abatement Act to litigate away motels along the Corridor. Feldstein Soto’s actions have prompted concern that dismantling the Corridor without providing any safe alternatives will push sex workers onto the street and into isolated, unlit, and dangerous areas, putting them at greater risk of rape and other kinds of violence. Talk of more police raids have local sex worker-led organizations on high alert and they are organizing actions and protests to oppose the crackdowns.
“Politicians like Feldstein Soto’s need to make sure there’s permanent and safe housing for those she’s displacing,” said Maxine Doogan, founder and president of Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education and Research Project, which aims to advance sexual privacy rights through legal advocacy, education, and research.
Motels like The New Gage charge hourly rates, offering safer workspaces than the street, where sex workers are often vulnerable to assault, robbery and arrests. Accumulating criminal records also make it harder for sex workers to acquire jobs or housing they need in order to flourish. And when police stings eliminate sex workers’ places of work, advocates say women are targeted first—disproportionately Black trans sex workers, other women of color, and single mothers.
“I can almost promise you that the list of services will not include housing or the actual things sex workers need,” said Kristen DiAngelo, the Executive Director of SWOP Sacramento, which provides direct outreach to sex workers.
Experts and advocates say over-policing sex trafficking has proven to be an abysmal waste of time and resources, and is not effective in preventing sex trafficking. Research conducted at USC’s Gould School of Law’s International Human Rights Clinic concluded that “Law enforcement over-rely on operations as a method to identify and empower victims when in reality, operations tend to traumatize victims and undermine their trust in law enforcement.” The report suggests that instead, operations could be limited to a very specific criteria of circumstances.
According to this study conducted by COYOTE RI (Call off Your Old Tired Ethics, Rhode Island), when SESTA/FOSTA (the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act) was signed into law in 2018, it shut down online communications between sex workers as well as our screening tools and advertising platforms. When Back Page, Eros, Craigslist and others all disappeared, it resulted in a sharp increase in assaults, and other hate crimes against sex workers.
Feldstein Soto is going a step further. She’s taking away physical indoor spaces, which could leave people engaged in sex work activities in the Figueroa Corridor economically bereft, traumatized, and more susceptible to assault and murder.
“Sex Work should not be illegal, Soma Snakeoil, Executive Director of The Sidewalk Project of Los Angeles, told me. “And neither should our living and workspaces.” The Sidewalk Project is a local non-profit organization that provides extensive harm reduction services and outreach like overdose prevention and wound care to unhoused Angelenos on Skid Row.
In order to reach out to the people most impacted by Feldstein Soto’s forthcoming police raids, I contacted Jen Elizabeth, director of street engagement and trauma-informed services for the Sidewalk Project.
I was on my way to meet Jen when she told me she’d been delayed; she had an emergency meeting with her team in regard to the serial killer targeting unhoused people while they slept. Jen told me the serial killer had murdered three people in three days.
This is what it’s like to be a sex worker in Los Angeles— if you are a sex worker who lives and works outside.
To live exactly where you work
It’s December 1st at 3:30pm and the sun’s dropping fast. Jen pulls up and I climb into the passenger seat of her car, handing her the complicated coffee drink she requested. She’s a pretty, punk blonde dressed in a tank top and black sequined Doc Martins. She looks like she’s going to a Distillers concert. She’s not. She tells me we are heading to the place she checks on people, the Trans Stroll, where trans women with HIV work and live outside.
“To live exactly where you work is very dangerous,” Jen says. “If someone has a stalker, they know exactly where you live.” I asked her how long she has been working in this particular area with this specific group. She tells me about four years.
“They are really amazing—the most bad-ass, courageous people out here,” she says. They refuse to be anything other than who they are—unhoused trans sex workers with HIV—and they are disproportionately Black trans women.”
A warm smile brightens her whole face when she talks about them. “I didn’t come here specifically to work with trans women with HIV, but they definitely adopted me.”
Jen tells me she’s learned not to have an agenda when she shows up, but today she does. She needs to warn them about the dangers of sleeping alone tonight.
“One person was killed right over here on 7th and Mateo. We are going to be warning them to stay together. Maybe find an emergency shelter if they want—but mostly, letting them know the risks.”
Jen asks me if I’ve ever done street-based sex work. “No,” I say. I tell her about getting arrested for prostitution years ago during a local sting. I know that my whiteness, class, and advanced college degrees have enabled me to do the sex work I want to do, and to enjoy the relative safety of working indoors. The people I will meet today don’t have these privileges.
In near darkness, Jen digs through bags and boxes to personally hand out makeup, dresses, condoms, jewelry, perfume, and other supplies to the women she chats with. The mood is casual and friendly.
I sit on the curb of a sidewalk next to Bianca Copeland, who reclines gracefully near a pile of clothing behind her. She fondles a cigarette. I asked her if she’s seen any police raids lately, and how she feels about the crackdown on the Corridor. She speaks softly, so I scoot close and hand her the lighter that’s just out of her reach on the ground.
“I haven’t had any hassles with the police, but a couple years ago I got busted by someone who was undercover,” she said. “It’s unfortunate because you’re just trying to make a living.”
I ask her how it’s been for her out here—if she feels safe. She tells me that it’s hard for her to make money, and some days are better than others. I asked her about her dreams and aspirations and if there’s anything she’d like to share about her life.
“I really do want more resources,” she says.
A firework lands in the middle of the street, spins, and smokes. Bianca warns her friend to look out. The firework does not go off.
“It’s my dream to write my autobiography. I want to write about a toxic relationship that was hard to break free from. I want to share my story in order to help other people.”
I thank her just as Chanel, 33, pulls up on her bicycle. She greets Bianca and the others. She’s happy to see Jen and they hug. I ask Chanel if she’d heard about the police raids on the Figueroa Corridor. “It’s unfair,” Chanel says. I ask her what her plans are, and if she stays nearby.
“I’m inside. I’m taking it step by step. I always dreamed of staying in this area,” she says. I tell her about the killer in the area and why we are posting flyers about it. “It’s scary,” she says.
Back in her car, Jen recalls a story about the 13 trans women that she brought into HIV services who were living out here for a decade.
“Medical service providers asked me how you were able to bring her in here? Eyelashes!
You bring them eyelashes and their shoulders go back and their heads lift up. It makes a huge difference. If your life is shitty, you don’t feel inclined to fight to live longer. When they start to feel better, they start taking their meds. Then they go to the doctor and fight to live longer because they feel better. They’re not taking every car. They’re being more selective,” she says.
I’m a renegade
By the time I drove to the Figueroa Corridor to take some photos of the motels, police had arrested the man suspected of killing three unhoused people as well as another man in San Dimas.
Jen had warned me that it was risky. She told me about teenagers who were working there, and that they all had pimps. She told me that it was a challenge to forge relationships with them to get services out to them, but that many sex-worker-led organizations were trying.
I wasn’t expecting to find any sex workers who would talk to me that early in the morning, but I still wanted to take some photos of motels and landmarks along the Corridor. On my way back towards USC, I pulled over to take one last photo and saw a curvy silhouette in clingy spandex standing on a side street. Her silver glitter eyelids shimmered in the morning sun.
I decided to say hello to her as I walked across the street. She introduced herself as Monique, and said, “I’m a renegade.” She explained that a renegade was a worker without a pimp. She waved her keys at me, “I’m a half ho,” she said. “I have a car and an apartment.” She said she was 30, without children, but she’d been out here working this area since she was 16. She said she worked security for a building, but it wasn’t enough to pay her bills. She said she worked here for money to live.
I asked her about the Gage Motel and if she thought they should tear those places down. She told me she doesn’t know and that she doesn’t go inside, that she prefers to be out here. She said that cops seemed more bothered by the pimps in the area sticking their heads out the windows of the motels, making a scene.
Two cars pulled up and parked. “I think they’re here for you,” I said. She smiled brightly and asked me if I was a cop. I told her no and took off my jacket. I told her I wanted to give her something that she might be able to use, and that I’d be right back. I showed her a little black and white striped bag with five kinds of false eyelashes, along with black eyelash glue, and offered her some. She picked out the most expensive ones. I complimented her choice.
“Those are the best,” I said. Then she told me to be careful walking up to people here. I asked her why. “It’s dangerous,” she said. I promised her I would. She walked back to where she first stood, tucking her eyelashes into her purse.
To learn more about how you can participate in upcoming actions, you can support and follow these sex worker-led nonprofit organizations: The Sidewalk Project, Stop the Raids, The Erotic Service Providers Union, and Sex Worker Outreach Project USA.
Antonia Crane is a queer writer, sex worker, filmmaker, activist, and PhD candidate at USC. She is the author of the memoir, Spent.