A 14-year-old girl is gradually disarmed by an older man she trusts. Before long, she’s forced into prostitution and transported across the state. Somehow, she’s rescued or escapes. But now, she’s 21 and has a 3-year-old child. She never finished high school, doesn’t have a driver’s license, has never controlled her own money and is homeless. This is the typical profile of an Arizona sex trafficking victim, says Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of Arizona State University’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research.
On December 14, 2016, the Phoenix City Council approved a plan to remedy this scenario by providing victims housing and support at Phoenix Starfish Place. In July, 15 victims and their children will move into the first city housing complex in the nation exclusively devoted to victims of human trafficking, according to Roe-Sepowitz. It’s the latest development in the city’s multi-year efforts to change its approach toward people who have been trafficked from punitive to protective.
In the lead-up to Super Bowl XLIX in 2015, Mayor Greg Stanton created the Phoenix Human Trafficking Task Force, led by Councilman Jim Waring, to beef up penalties for offenders, increase prevention efforts and help victims. (Although there’s no evidence that Super Bowls increase human trafficking, the associated revelry does escalate sex work; human trafficking is often a corollary.) The task force includes members from various city and non-profit agencies, including law enforcement, ASU and the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute.
The task force is combating a far-reaching issue: Human trafficking is the second most lucrative organized criminal offense in the world, behind organized crime. Put simply, human trafficking is illegally transporting people – of any age or sex – from one area to another for forced labor or sexual exploitation. Since December 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has received more than 31,600 reports in the U.S., though this measure doesn’t fully quantify the hidden crime’s scope. It’s also notoriously difficult to prevent. Among children who are trafficked, it affects “kids from every socio-economic background, every place, every race,” Roe-Sepowitz says. “Traffickers look for people who are vulnerable and don’t feel loved. It’s not related to background or even how much your parents are paying attention to you.
There’s no one profile of a victim.”
Victims’ backgrounds are diverse, but their needs are fundamental: foremost, stable housing, which Phoenix Starfish Place will deliver. The complex fell into the city’s lap in spring 2016 when it sought to expand its housing voucher program to vulnerable groups beyond the homeless, says City of Phoenix housing director Cindy Stotler. The city assumed the loans it had extended to the Foundation for Senior Living, which built the property, and purchased the building for its equity, $350,000.
The city has yet to define eligibility or application requirements (at press time, it was evaluating proposals for case managers to set that process); however, once residents move in, they can be assured of low-rent housing until they become self-sufficient.
The complex is equipped with facilities to help residents, in effect, learn how to be adults. There is a demonstration kitchen for cooking classes, a pantry with staples to help residents get through each month, child care and a library with computers for doing GED homework or job searching.
Roe-Sepowitz and ASU students will contribute to and guide therapeutic services. “We’re using the sanctuary model – a perspective of trauma-focused and trauma-aware care. Everyone working with these clients will be aware that life has not been good to them,” she says. They’ll utilize holistic interventions, such as meditation, yoga and improv workshops, and offer classes on parenting, job readiness and house cleaning. Remarking on the victims’ experiences, Roe-Sepowitz recalls, “A friend who works in this field had a 25-year-old client tell her, ‘You’re asking me to make my bed, but I’ve never slept on sheets before.’”
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