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Former exotic dancer finds it hard to move forward in bad economy

Bundled up on a recent Sunday in a brown winter coat, boots, gloves and a scarf covering her head, Valerie Lucas still shivered as a late afternoon wind ripped across the Clark County Social Services building parking lot.

Nearly five hours before, right at noon, the former exotic dancer joined a line off Pinto Lane with dozens of others, some with small children in tow, in her seventh attempt to receive emergency rental assistance.

She was waiting in line to try to get priority for another line, one that would start at 5 a.m. the next morning, to receive a $400 rental voucher.

"I never thought this would happen to me," said the 43-year-old Lucas, who once had men standing in line to fill her G-string with cash at the Olympic Garden strip club.

"I’ve always made my own way, one way or another. The standing in line process always makes you feel like you’re grinding your teeth. It sucks. It’s embarrassing."

On Jan. 5, after another seven-hour wait, much of it inside the building this time, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Lucas finally got the money she needed.

To some, that success might make it Miller Time, but not so for Lucas, a recovering alcoholic.

"I’ve got nine years of sobriety, and I intend to keep it," she said. "I want to move on to something better."

She is hesitant about talking in detail how about she got to this time and place.

"I don’t really like talking about my past, particularly about my work as a dancer," she said. "It really doesn’t do me any good."

Over a period of days, however, conversations with Lucas and her good friend, Nita Stern, often while she was at Stern’s home in northwest Las Vegas, do produce an outline of a life that she calls "living on the edge."

Lucas grew up in California in "I guess what was a traditional family with a mom and dad," but she said she began to have problems in middle school with drinking. She also used drugs and sometimes sold them.

"I’d say I was already an alcoholic at 13," she said.

Though she dropped out of high school, Lucas earned her GED. For more than a decade in California, she worked either in collections or as a tattoo artist.

At one point, she said she became a housewife, but the relationship fell apart.

About a decade ago, she came to Nevada and took up stripping "because the money was good. It was just a means to an end."

Advancing age and tired of the "hustle" necessary to separate men from their money, Lucas last spring was convinced she needed to find other employment.

"Let’s face it; it’s a young woman’s game," said Stern, a former garment manufacturer who met Lucas in a 12-step program.

But finding work that paid well with her background was easier said than done, Lucas said.

She often had to lie about how she spent the last 10 years.

"I don’t think it helps to put on a job application that I was a dancer or that I’m in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) so I don’t do it," she said. "I put down that I was a housewife."

After she first left stripping, Lucas got a job behind the counter at a cafe that largely had recovering alcoholics and drug addicts for customers.

She also worked for about a month in housekeeping at The Orleans. With the help of friends, she found houses to clean.

The future looked brighter, she said, when an acquaintance told her she could make good money as a pest control technician.

She studied for weeks for two state tests and passed them.

Ron Krueger, the owner of D-Termination, a Las Vegas extermination company, admits he was stunned when she applied for a job with his small business, which began in 2000.

"At first, I was reluctant to even think about taking someone on who had been into dancing," Krueger said.

"She certainly looked like she could still do it. Her nails were all done, and she was carrying a Louis Vuitton bag. She looked more like she might want to be an executive secretary than someone who would want to kill ants and mice."

But after two or three conversations, Krueger decided to give her a shot.

"She really seemed to want to change her life," he said.

It didn’t take long for Krueger to become impressed with Lucas’ work ethic.

She climbed atop tall buildings to do pigeon proofing. She did beehive removals. And bed bug killings.

And then, less than two months after Krueger hired Lucas, the economy tanked.

"Small businesses are really getting hit in this slowdown," Krueger said.

"She is the first person I’ve ever had to lay off," he said. "I’ve had to fire people, but that wasn’t what this was about. It was strictly because of the way things slowed down. Residential customers weren’t hiring us as much. I told her my laying her off had absolutely nothing to do with the way she did her work. I had no complaints. If things pick up, maybe we can work together again."

Out of a job the first week in December, Lucas found herself without the use of the pickup she got as part of employment with D-Termination.

She also found herself out of a place to live. Because she didn’t have enough time with D-Termination, she didn’t qualify for unemployment.

Stern and her husband, Steve, took her in.

"She was basically evicted by three roommates who realized she could no longer pay her share of the rent," Nita Stern said.

Stern admires the way her friend is going after work. Lucas has applied for customer service jobs at the MGM CityCenter project and at other new properties in town.

She is also looking for positions in pest control.

"I just need enough money to live on," she said.

Stern said she is shocked at how difficult it is for people to get public assistance so they can get back on their feet.

Stern has driven Lucas repeatedly to the social services and food stamp offices. She also has stood in line with her.

It took her six attempts and about 40 hours of waiting, but Lucas, with Stern along, finally got into the rent voucher office in December.

"That’s when we were told to come back in January because she had gotten a paycheck in December," Stern said. "No one told us the rule."

Lucas expects she’ll be moving out of the Sterns’ home later this month. Nita Stern said that while she wants to help a friend, their home is small.

Lucas hopes her first experience with public assistance is her last.

"I don’t know how I would have got through this without Nita and Steve," she said. "You have to have friends at a time like this. I am so sympathetic to people who don’t have anyone to lean on at a time like this. I have no idea how they make it."

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in an occasional series that will profile people and places affected by home foreclosures and a faltering economy.

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