A Life on the Edge
When life kept kicking her in the teeth, Mary O’Connor finally bit back
By Carl Kozlowski 03/27/2008
The afternoon of Thursday, March 13, was one of the worst that Mary O’Connor had ever endured. Considering the 30-year-old Los Angeles resident had fallen into and recovered from a life in prostitution, survived multiple rapes and sexual assaults and suffered throughout her life from an array of physical and emotional disabilities, that’s saying a lot.
O’Connor had been locked in a battle with her landlord for the past three months, fighting to keep the first stable home she’d had in four years while her apartment building’s management company tried every trick in the book to avoid renewing her lease and toss her out. It’s not that they didn’t seem to have a case, either, for O’Connor is one of the most unusual human beings to ever come down the pike: a sometimes bemusing, more often bewildering and nearly always exasperating mass of contradictions that make the legendary firebrand Erin Brockovich seem as demure as Snow White.
On the surface, the battle between O’Connor and Mid-City Holdings, LLC, centered on the number of animals she kept in her one-room apartment in Koreatown, a few blocks east of Vermont Avenue on Beverly Boulevard. She had three dogs, two cats, two small birds and a turtle in a space that according to her lease, legally seemed to allow just one dog — yet due to the many traumatic events she had been subjected to in her relatively short lifetime, her physicians have vouched in writing that she needs every one of those animals as emotional support to help her function on a daily basis.
Mid-City and its representative, Bruno Sanchez, wanted her out due to the pungent scents brewing in her apartment, as well as their claims that the animals’ fur was clogging her bathroom drains and causing damaging floods to her fourth-floor apartment and the tenants below her. But thanks to knowing me as a member of the press and retaining Pasadena-based housing activist-turned-lawyer Philip Koebel as her attorney, O’Connor has been fighting back and apparently winning an unlikely string of concessions from Mid-City and its lawyer.
In fact, nothing dramatic was supposed to happen on March 13. LA Superior Court Judge Rex Heeseman told both sides on Feb. 29 to cool off, gather their evidence and arguments, and return on March 24 for a ruling on whether O’Connor could stay in her apartment, and with how many animals.
Yet now, due to a ruse in which a repairman said he needed to enter to fix the latest toilet overflow and proceeded to enable Animal Control and LAPD officers to enter her apartment as well, O’Connor was in handcuffs and hysterics in the hall outside her studio dwelling. As Animal Control officers removed the animals that she considered her family members, O’Connor said police officers on scene taunted her about her arrest as a prostitute and scoffed at her claims that the cuffs were notching up the severe pain she’s suffered for the past four years since a devastating car accident.
But in the days that followed, as she awaited her March 24 hearing, isolated in a neighborhood where few of her neighbors speak English, and in an apartment with nine documented repair needs, O’Connor still clung to the steely resolve that had kept her alive through situations that have overwhelmed countless others.
“This is not just about me and my animals. This is about everyone who has a need for support animals to survive, everyone who’s afraid or unable to speak up because of their mental or emotional illness,” said O’Connor, her hand stabbing the air dramatically. “I know how to speak up, and I won’t be ignored. Everyone has the right to live their life without total interference and keep a roof over their heads.” Odd, yet sweet
The story of how O’Connor wound up in such dire straits dates back to an unhappy childhood. Unlike the stereotypes that often surround prostitutes, however, her family was and remains intact — with both her parents and three brothers still living in the distant Chicago suburb of Woodridge.
Rather, O’Connor was the proverbial square peg in the round hole of society, a girl with unusual and eclectic tastes that ranged from a fascination with circuses to a Dr. Doolittle-like ability to relate to animals of all kinds. Even today, one can spend an afternoon watching her juggle, twirl batons and hula hoop all while riding a balance board before engaging in a discussion of Irish history while listening to her vast collection of obscure 1970s pop music.
“My whole family was intellectually driven, talking about ancient Roman history for casual dinner conversation, and I wrote five novels as a kid, so I was mocked horribly at school for being ‘different’ and never had many friends,” she recalls. “I can also unicycle, eat fire and can hula hoop atop a rolling globe, because my dream was always to be in the circus — so I could always travel and never get labeled again.”
While all this might make her sound like a character straight out of a John Irving novel, I can vouch for many of her stories and abilities. I met her 10 years ago in a community college’s Circus Arts class that I was taking as part of a story assignment for a Chicago weekly newspaper. While we never became close friends, our frequent acquaintance based on a love of comedy and entertainment stood out in my memories even after moving to Los Angeles in 2002.
To me and others on the Chicago standup comedy scene, O’Connor was an odd, yet incredibly sweet and innocently childlike woman with a boisterous laugh. There was no way to know she was harboring emotional wounds from a teacher’s unwelcome advance at age 11 and the seemingly non-stop verbal assault of fellow students her senior year that crushed her self-esteem.
And so it was disconcerting to find her calling out to me around midnight near the Hollywood-Vine Metro train stop on a cold night in March 2006, clutching a blue corduroy coat tight to hide the fact she was wearing only a bra and miniskirt underneath. I could immediately tell something was wrong with her, that a seismic shift had taken place in her life, but she wasn’t being forthcoming and it was not my place yet to pry.
All she would explain was that she had moved to the LA area a few months before, and that she was “getting by.” Only when a mutual friend put me in touch with her parents after O’Connor was arrested for prostitution later that month did I learn of her actual circumstances. Her mother asked me to head down to court in Long Beach and try to ensure that she didn’t leave her brother on the hook for the bail money he had fronted for her — a factor O’Connor had already handled.
That began what can only be described as an awkward phase in our acquaintance, as I found her problems were far deeper than I realized while Mary felt the understandable yet extreme anger of being outed by her mother to the only friendly person she knew in Los Angeles. But now I knew her reality: that she was going from one cheap hotel to another and selling herself to supplement the modest $940 she receives monthly as her SSI disability check.
“My whole life, I’ve had extreme difficulty with concentration, way beyond most people’s concept of [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder],” says O’Connor. “That made most white-collar jobs off-limits for me, and then I also have severe endometriosis, which causes me so much pain so unexpectedly that I can be up and about one night and almost incapacitated by pain the very next morning.” The lowest point
One thing that O’Connor has learned amid all her problems is to keep thorough and well-detailed records of medical visits and police reports in a three-level file cabinet. And in searching through them as I got to know her anew, it was clear that she truly was buried under a mountain of bad luck and bureaucracy — most of which centered around her need for connection with animals, a connection she’d harbored since childhood but which now is a necessity in helping her deal with post-traumatic stress disorder from the challenge her life has become.
Mary had lived at home with her family until 2004, when many years of financial difficulties came to a head for them and they appeared in danger of losing their longtime home. Feeling guilty about being another mouth to feed while unable to maintain consistent employment, she hit the road, hop-scotching the country from Florida to Utah to Los Angeles with a few stops in Phoenix in between.
Possessed of an almost foolhardy bravery and financial desperation, she rented U-Hauls (a surprisingly affordable alternative to most car rentals) to get around before settling in the Los Angeles area due to its ample array of social services, including a program that would train her dogs as service animals. Since she brought her animals with her on this last trip west, she found it nearly impossible to afford an apartment that would also allow more than one animal.
Instead, she bounced between motels and the occasional couch or bed of a stranger — housing her animals — unpaid — in a kennel for months at one point. She’d find herself forced into trading sexual favors for the right to a roof over her head, sometimes even suffering outright rapes, all due to her abject terror that the city’s massive shelters and open streets were an even worse place to be.
She kept getting degraded by strangers and often ignored by police to whom she’d report an assault and eventually turned to hooking full-time for survival. Her lowest point perhaps came when she faced a judge over prostitution charges in May 2006, which Mary says prompted her brothers to turn on her with words like “whore” and her mother to say, “There are no good girls gone bad — just bad girls found out.”
Such comments have caused perhaps irreparable damage in her family relations. Yet, in her darkest moments Mary’s determination to regain her life held firm, leading to her ability to pull out of the sex industry in February 2007 and start pursuing justice for herself and others.
“When you’re told repeatedly that nothing that happens to you matters, it starts to alter your view of justice. I always thought you had an obligation to report when someone assaults you, even when you can’t bring yourself to do it,” explains O’Connor. “I don’t think people should judge women who can’t do it, because it’s the hardest thing in the world to talk about someone stroking your breasts and tonguing you against your will.
“Then, when every civil right was trampled on, I decided not to let them get away with it and it’s so hard to report it that I was praying, ‘Please God, let me be able to say this part’ about how my pants are around my ankles and a guy’s cleaning up with a towel, saying sorry. People say that if you’re hitchhiking around and get raped, why don’t you get up and leave in the middle of the night? Because the known devil you’re already with might be better than the unknown devil that might be outside.”True worth
As one might imagine, four years of not knowing whom to trust and whether you’ll have a roof over your head, and whether you’ll have your beloved pets and emotional support animals taken away, has hardened O’Connor. Possessed of a hair-trigger temper that she unleashes with tsunami-like strength and frequently employing a vocabulary that would make sailors cover their ears, she has developed a take-no-bullshit attitude that experts say is common to survivors of exploitation.
“All I know is that if you’ve been through the sex industry, whether as a prostitute or a stripper, you’ll get labeled as a ‘whore,’ usually by everyone you care most about, and sometimes for the rest of your life,” says Lora Allison, who runs Silver Braid, a sex workers survivors group in Ventura that Mary has attended numerous times. “That’s why we have to have an AA-like support group that can help them realize they’re not alone, they do have true worth as human beings and that they can break out of the cycle.”
Allison stated that 80 percent of women in prostitution were psychologically, physically or sexually abused as children. She also noted that the idea that a prostitute “wanted it and asked for it” when reporting a rape is yet another vicious myth that needs to be expunged from society.
“Mary’s definitely an extreme situation because often these people who suffer what she has are already much marginalized people, so they don’t tend to seek out services as much because they already know they’re fighting such an uphill battle,” says Allison. “A lot of people might fall by the wayside and suffer in silence, but Mary does not stay silent. She’s very vocal in getting what she needs.”
What Mary needs is to have a secure place to live with the de facto family of animals that make her feel safe in a world where so many people have done her wrong. But because the issue of support animals other than seeing-eye dogs — and especially animals whose support is deemed emotional — is often overlooked in general society, the battle to maintain them is uphill.Ongoing and growing
Spending an afternoon with O’Connor as she makes the rounds of the city revealed MTA buses that skipped right past her at bus stops and drivers that had to be begged to allow her service dog aboard the bus. The moment she brought in the dog to a Jack in the Box at Sunset and Cahuenga boulevards, the guard attempted to oust the pair — relenting only when I presented the dog’s paperwork along with my press card.
“ESA’s [Emotional Support Animals] are different because there’s no California or federal law directly addressing them, but rather they’re protected under the Fair Housing Act in which landlords are required to make reasonable accommodations,” says Kurt Baldwin, an assistant advocacy coordinator for the Independent Living Center of Southern California, who has advised O’Connor. “HUD is the enforcement agency and they’ve basically come out with guidance that if a landlord has a no-pets policy and then because of someone’s disability they have an animal that helps them function, a landlord has to make accommodation for that person. Companionship animals are a very big deal for seniors especially, so this is a very big and growing issue.”According to longtime activist Mitch Pomerantz, an American with Disabilities Act compliance officer for the city of Los Angeles whose wife Donna chairs Pasadena’s Accessibility and Disability Commission, state laws are weighted heavily to favor the disabled who seek ESAs.
“Landlords are not as familiar with the ESAs because it’s a newer type of classification in which doctors have found that people who’ve been attacked really do feel safer with their dogs around, or that bipolar people use the action of petting or holding a dog to get back to reality and an even keel,” says Pomerantz. “Under state law, someone who acquires an animal, whether trained or not, to help them emotionally has the protected right to keep it. And there are certainly laws protecting people who fight for these rights against retaliation for doing so.”
Yet the apparent retaliation that O’Connor has faced from Mid City Holdings and its representatives like Sanchez (who ignored repeated attempts for comment), is ongoing and growing. It’s just getting interesting
Faced with an eviction notice that could have tossed her back in the street, O’Connor finally found a sympathetic lawyer in Koebel, a longtime Pasadena housing activist who started his own law practice last year.
With an incredulous smirk and a sardonic world-weariness in his voice, Koebel, 42, is keen to express the frustration and inhumanity that can be heaped upon the weak by the strong in the housing arena. And yet he has plenty of fire left in his belly, even after 15 years of standing up to those same injustices — a period that even saw him run for Pasadena mayor against longstanding popular incumbent Bill Bogaard in 2003 on a platform focused on rent control.
His office is stuffed with files of cases from across the city and the San Gabriel Valley documenting the tragic tales of families on the brink of losing their homes. Remarkably, his own house is a testament to his concern for others, as he has shared it for the past decade with a single mother friend and her family of nine children who had lost their house next door.
Despite all his efforts, Koebel often finds himself on the receiving end of the same verbal attacks that his clients heap against those evicting them. Therefore, the colorfully abusive words that O’Connor throws his way when facing a downturn don’t seem to faze him much at all.
“Mary’s case is a very unusual case, but it’s fundamentally sound, and there’s very clear law that emotional support dogs are reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities and painful ailments. How that works is not clear to many landlords and many tenants,” says Koebel. “I’ve learned a lot from Mary O’Connor. I started the case much more skeptical but I’m learning all the time that there’s much more protection. The primary issue before the judge: Does that reasonable accommodation extend to three small dogs in a one-room apartment? What’s the balancing between a need for family of animals and flagrant abuse of the situation?”
What Koebel hopes Judge Heeseman will find when the next hearing comes around is that several of the arguments Mid-City Holdings is using against O’Connor are outright fabrications. Many of the deceptions have come to light, ironically, as a result of the animal seizures on March 13, when sympathetic neighbors stepped forward to take O’Connor’s side.
“Who would have known Koreatown is actually just like a 16th century New England village?” O’Connor said in one of her unique turns of phrase, describing the odd situation of being gossiped about in multiple languages by the strangers around her.
“Everyone knows everything.”
“We’re all talking about the potential damage on the quality of life of neighbors. Well, as the case goes on, we’re learning it’s certainly unclear how many neighbors have actually complained,” says Koebel. “The more the case goes along, this seems that the landlord just doesn’t like the tenant due to their issues and ‘difficulties’ brought about by emotional disabilities. It seems if there were no animals involved here, the landlord would have found another way to challenge this tenant.”
Among the juicy details that have come to light in the past two weeks are that O’Connor’s downstairs neighbors have stated her apartment’s bathroom has been flooding for years and cannot be blamed on her doing — yet Sanchez and Mid-City have repeatedly bemoaned that O’Connor is singlehandedly ruining their property. And the neighbor whom Mary supposedly drove away due to her apartment’s scent and the incessant yapping of her silky terrier? Turns out he joined the military in hopes of fighting in Iraq, and he even trusted her enough to watch his cat while he’s away.
Add in the extensive building code violations regarding safety and fire hazards that Koebel has uncovered while investigating O’Connor’s apartment and it could be one long and painful day for Mid-City when hearings reopen. And they haven’t even fully revealed the aces left up their sleeves: a planned dramatic presentation of the seven-pound, eight-inch-long silky terrier that Sanchez has blamed for biting a repairman and generally terrorizing the building, and the revelation that Animal Control not only utilized dirty and possibly illegal tricks but was so incompetent in their raid that they left O’Connor’s cat behind while claiming in their paperwork that they possessed the feline.
“You have a liability problem here and the [Mid-City staff] doesn’t wanna take a risk, so they’ve created a panic about this unreasonable accommodation that by all accounts is not bothering anybody. They’re gently lying in all cases,” says Koebel. “The interesting issue is you have someone with an emotional disability who is trying to cope. She’s upfront about it. She may have been deceptive about the number of animals when she moved in, but not of her emotional disability.
“What you have here is cut and dried. The person with a disability is making the landlord discomfited but the reason for that is that the landlord has some legitimate issues with the apartment building,” he said. “Stay tuned, folks. It’s gonna get interesting.”
In Part Two, the court showdown continues and O’Connor reveals the hardships of breaking free from the streets and the battle for justice with both police and her assailants.
I can't find Parts Two and Three right now but will add later when i do...Here's a 4th part with the latest twists in her life - nice ones, thank God...Not every hard-luck story gets a happy ending.
A new start for O'Connor
By Carl Kozlowski 05/29/2008
The hard-knocks life of Mary O’Connor — a woman whose struggles with mental illness and fight to avoid homelessness were highlighted by a three-part series in March and April editions of the Pasadena Weekly — took a turn for the better on Saturday when she moved into a spacious new apartment.
O’Connor came to the paper’s attention in February when Mid-City Holdings, LLC, refused to renew her lease on a Koreatown studio apartment, largely because of the number of animals she keeps in her home.
These animals — dogs, cats, birds and a turtle — have been deemed “emotional support animals” by her doctor and help her cope with such problems as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
With the help of Pasadena attorney Philip Koebel, O’Connor not only beat her pending eviction, she won an undisclosed court settlement that allowed her to move into her new home.
“The story has a happy ending. She’s lucked out. It just goes to show there are pet-friendly apartments and understanding apartment managers,” said Koebel. “The belief is that [people with special needs] have to conceal their disability and it’s not always the case. I think it comes down to people exercising good judgment. The fact that the new place is being favorable [to O’Connor] is a lesson that Mid-City should take to heart."