Just imagine the picture of a happy, well-adjusted young girl growing up in a loving family. As she ages and enters adulthood, she finds a job and a place to live and begins her life. At twenty-four years old, her life begins to spiral downward due to an undiagnosed mental illness. This illness eventually causes her to lose her job and home, and she ultimately finds herself homeless and living on the streets, seeing no way out of her situation.
An acquaintance tells her that she knows a guy who can help with food and shelter, and that guy becomes her sex trafficker for the next three years. This brave woman left that life on her own and was accepted into a halfway house for treatment. This is a true story of how this survivor became involved in human trafficking (HT). Her powerful story represents how certain events can change a person's life forever.
According to Rethreaded, up to 72 barriers have been identified to an HT survivor creating a new life. Some of these barriers are life traumas, employment challenges if there is a criminal history, and lack of transportation or a driver’s license. Only a few are named here; this may be why only 20 percent make it out of the life of HT.
To better understand the challenges, I contacted two organizations committed to helping make a difference in the lives of HT survivors.
Four years ago, Carla Sweeney, who was running Awakenings House, Sober Living for Women in Jacksonville, was contacted by a colleague to inquire if she had space for a woman trying to escape the life of trafficking and no one would take her because of an existing police record, which is not uncommon for women living this life. Sweeney had no experience with HT but decided to help give this woman a chance to freedom. She later teamed up with Donna Fenchel, and in 2019, they learned that 1,887 women were trafficked in Florida, with only 131 beds available, and most of the housing was designated for both men and women or children, creating a significant barrier for women trying to leave the life of human trafficking. They didn’t know much about housing, but that didn’t stop them.
To address the challenge, Sweeney and Fenchel formed Villages of Hope. This private-funded organization began its pilot project in 2019 to provide adequate housing for female victims of HT, as well as a two-year program, which is essential for the survivor's success. Each survivor’s program is designed for their situation and healing journey. Their program includes therapy, counseling, education, and long-term planning to restore the survivor’s self-worth that was lost along the way.
In 2022, private funding purchased land on the west side of Jacksonville, where Villages of Hope stands today. A community center serves as a gathering place for meals, therapy, and crafts, and Tiny Homes are being built to house their residents. Fenchel and Sweeney are tremendously grateful to Scott and Julie Keiling for spearheading the Tiny Home Project, but they still need additional builders/partners to complete the project. Village of Hope has an online shop with products made by the residents for sale. You will see many ways to help listed on their website www.villagesofhope.org.
Another organization that is having an impact in our area is Rethreaded. According to their website, it started as a simple idea and was then followed up with action by its founder, Kristin Keen. She began by building relationships with women who wanted a better life and realized what was needed was a safe work environment where they could earn money, learn new skills, and begin their healing process.
Rethreaded’s first full-time employee was hired in 2012 through its partnership with the City Rescue Mission. It has grown to provide not only jobs but also long-term life and career goals for the survivors of trafficking in our area.
They have a robust online shop, and when possible, the materials used are upcycled or repurposed into beautiful items. In addition, materials like T-shirts and retired airline covers donated by Southwest Airlines are used to make the products. They partner with companies that honor Fair Trade practices and consciously source raw materials from local companies. The proceeds from the sales are reinvested to support Rethreaded’s mission. Please visit the website to learn how you can become involved.
This three-part series has only scratched the surface of the many faces of HT. So, what can we do now as a community? The most important thing each of us can do is to educate ourselves.
* Watch for the accepted S.O.S. hand signal victims use when asking for help. The victim will fold their thumb onto their palm and then close their four fingers over the thumb, indicating they(the thumb) are being held against their will.
* Look out for the signs in hotels, gas stations, or where people from all over the country are in attendance. The signs can be found on the Florida Alliance to End HT website.
* If something looks suspicious, call law enforcement in Florida (1-855-FLA-SAFE) or record the number of the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888). Add both numbers to your phone so you will be prepared.
Imagine the changes we could make in someone's life if we all worked together.
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